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Chief Justice Awarded Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law

By Tim Arnold

Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser 77 E-mail  E-mail   print  Print
Rather than being merely complex legal abstractions, the decisions made by the Virginia Supreme Court “truly touch the daily lives and affairs of everyone in all walks of life,” Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser ’77 said at the Law School April 14. Kinser, recipient of the 2011 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law, spoke in Caplin Pavilion as part of events celebrating her award.

Dean Paul G. Mahoney praised Kinser’s achievements, especially her appointment as the first female chief justice of Virginia. In 1997 then-Gov. George Allen ’77, a Law School classmate, appointed her to the state Supreme Court, and in 2010 her fellow justices elected her chief justice.

“We are honored to be able to present her the Jefferson Medal in Law,” Mahoney said. Kinser said she was pleased and surprised by the award. “I can tell you that when I graduated from the Law School in 1977, I never imagined that I would be back here giving a lecture as the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law recipient.”

Kinser was a noted jurist and attorney in her native Southwest Virginia long before she joined the state Supreme Court. She was raised — and still resides — in Pennington Gap, a town in Lee County only 10 miles from the Kentucky border.

After graduating from the Law School, Kinser clerked for Judge Glen M. Williams of the Western District of Virginia before entering private practice in Southwest Virginia, where she was one of the only female practicing attorneys at the time.

She was elected as Lee County’s first female commonwealth’s attorney in 1980 and later returned to private practice before being appointed a U.S. magistrate judge for the Western District of Virginia in 1990.

The seven members of the state Supreme Court heard 2,600 cases last year and granted 187 appeals, Kinser said. This record compared favorably with the 8,000 filings in the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in only 73 opinions, she said.

Even if the facts in a given appeal may seem to justify a particular ruling, Kinser said, appellate judges are bound by very specific rules in overturning a verdict. If judges are not strict in applying those rules, their decisions become dangerous, she said.

As a result, appellate judges take their duties seriously, Kinser said. “It’s not unusual to spend many hours writing and editing just one part of an opinion to make sure that at the end of the day it says exactly what the court intended it to say,” she said.

“All of us struggle with and worry about the unintended consequences of any decision. How is it going to play out in the next case?”

Among the many rules that bind appellate judges, Kinser highlighted four: the litigant’s legal standing, the relevance of the error or argument to the original trial, the standards of review, and legal precedence.

“I believe that if appellate judges regularly reverse factual findings or the discretionary decisions of the trial judges because we happen to disagree with them, we would be removing the people best suited to make those decisions from that role, and I believe that we would be undermining both our system of justice and the public’s trust in all courts’ decisions,” she said.

The Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law and its counterparts in architecture and civic leadership are the highest external honors bestowed by the University, which grants no honorary degrees. The awards recognize the achievements of those who embrace endeavors that Jefferson excelled in and held in high regard.

Sponsored jointly by the University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello, the annual awards are conferred during the University's Founder's Day celebrations, held around Jefferson's birthday on April 13. In addition to receiving a medal struck for the occasion, recipients attended ceremonies in the Rotunda and a dinner at Monticello.