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Posted Feb. 9, 2009

Justices Describe Virginia's Highest Court

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From left: Justices Barbara Milano Keenan, S. Bernard Goodwyn and Donald Lemons.

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Contact: Rob Seal

Members of the Virginia Supreme Court hear cases on everything from baseball to defamation, and are among “the last generalists of society,” a justice said at the Law School on Friday.

Three justices from the state’s highest court visited the Law School to present an introduction to the court and answer students’ questions.

Justices Barbara Milano Keenan, Donald Lemons and S. Bernard Goodwyn — all Law School alumni — each spoke about one aspect of the court before taking questions. Professor Kent Sinclair moderated the event.

Keenan focused on the breadth of the court, saying that in an era of increased legal specialization, the justices get a chance to see it all.

“The variety of subjects with which we deal is really limitless,” she said. “You really don’t have to be a nerd to get excited about it…it really is consistently interesting.”

Lemons, who presented a brief history of the court, said one of its major duties is to review every death penalty case in the state.

Lemons pointed out that because Virginia is one of the top three states in the number of death penalty cases annually, many other states look to the Supreme Court of Virginia in matters of death penalty jurisprudence.

Keenan, who is the first person as a jurist to sit at all levels of the Virginia court system, also expressed her pride at the Supreme Court of Virginia’s status as a “majority minority court,” with two women and two African-American justices out of seven.

“I love the thought of what those old guys 200-and-some years ago [would think] about who’s in charge,” she said.

The court’s diversity also comes into play when the justices are deliberating a case. Although justices are supposed to keep their personal experiences and the law separate, Lemons said the two often intersect when justices must determine certain gray areas of the law, such as reasonableness.

“One mistake a judge would make would be to, on the one hand, try to impose their will and values where they shouldn’t, and in another sense, it would be to fail to listen to others who had different experiences that might inform such things as what’s reasonable and what’s not,” he said.

Goodwyn echoed his colleagues’ statements, noting that a justice’s background influences how he or she interprets the totality of the circumstances of a particular case. Installed to the court in October 2007, Goodwyn said he is still adjusting to his job.

“For me, every court week is like 30 law school exams, but it is extremely interesting, and I have enjoyed this experience,” he said.

During the question-and-answer period, Goodwyn cautioned future lawyers to make sure they listen carefully to the justices’ questions should they ever argue in front of the Supreme Court of Virginia.

“A lot of times, judges are asking you questions because I know Don [Lemons has] got a problem with what you’ve said, and I’m giving you a softball so that you can explain for me why I am right about what you said,” Goodwyn said.

Lemons said he often sees attorneys lose sight of where they are and treat their case as if they are still in a trial court.

“We are not a place to listen to an impassioned, persuasive factual summary of a case,” Lemons said. “We’re here because there are legal questions involved that have gotten your case to us.”

• Reported by Lindsey Wagner