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Meet Donald Lemons '76: Virginia's Chief Justice

by Michelle Koidin Jaffee

UVA Law alumni of the Supreme Court of Virginia, from left, Justice Cleo Powell ’82, Chief Justice Donald Lemons ’76, and Justice Bernard Goodwyn ’86

UVA Law alumni of the Supreme Court of Virginia, from left, Justice Cleo Powell ’82, Chief Justice Donald Lemons ’76, and Justice Bernard Goodwyn ’86

As a circuit court judge for the city of Richmond, Donald W. Lemons ’76 was looking for a better way to handle nonviolent drug offenders, whose incarceration was costly and, in his view, failed to address the root problem of addiction.

With no money for a new program and in the face of criticism that he would appear “soft on crime,” the former probation officer pulled together a novel alternative called a “drug court,” sentencing eligible convicts to probation-supervision including substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and job training. To get it off the ground, he persuaded the Department of Corrections to provide probation officers, teachers, and job counselors. “I just begged and borrowed resources from everywhere,” he recalls.

The new approach was not a fit for everyone: “There are people who got into the program and within two weeks said, ‘Please take me out of this program—just go ahead and send me to prison,’ because it was so hard,” Lemons says. “But the ones who persevered came out the other end with a new opportunity and a new way of coping with their own lives, and many became very productive people.”

Today, 16 years later, there are 38 drug courts in Virginia. And Lemons, who went on to ascend to the state’s Court of Appeals and then to its highest court, in January became chief justice of the seven-member Supreme Court of Virginia.

Currently the most senior member with more than 14 years on the high court, Lemons, 66, was elected by his peers to a four-year term to replace (the retiring) Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser ’77. Kinser recently returned to private practice with Gentry Locke in Roanoke, serving as senior counsel and focusing on appeals, criminal matters, and government investigations. “For more than 17 years, I had the privilege to serve with outstanding jurists on the Supreme Court of Virginia. Like me, several of them UVA Law alumni. All my colleagues were not only dedicated public servants committed to the administration of justice, but also my friends.”

“The choice, to me, seemed natural,” says Justice Cleo E. Powell ’82. “In the few months he has been chief, it has been confirmed for me that it was the right choice. He has great ideas about moving things forward, he is very collaborative, [and] wants to get all of our opinions on how things should work. He brings to us innovative ideas he might be considering, lays them out on the table, and gets everyone’s opinion. He’s just very thoughtful, very contemplative, and very inclusive, all of which make for a good leader.”

With Lemons, Powell, and Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn ’86, there are currently three Law School alumni on the high court; additionally, Senior Justices Charles S. Russell ’48 and Elizabeth B. Lacy LL.M. ’92 attended the Law School.

“I think for a lot of people who go to UVA Law School,” says Goodwyn, “there’s a certain sense of obligation to the community and to the law, and it’s that sense of obligation that encourages them to go into public service.”

Lemons takes over an extremely young court: In the last eight years, every seat except for his has turned over.

In some sense, it’s a new day for the court. “We’re still feeling our way, I think as far as an identity for the court overall, just because we haven’t been together that long,” Goodwyn says.

All three alumni bring experience from the circuit court level. “I think that having that experience in the trenches as busy and not terribly well-supported trial judges informs their error review and abuse-of-discretion review which appellate courts have to engage in,” says Professor Kent Sinclair, director of advocacy and lawyer training. “So they have a better appreciation of how the system operates on the ground than many appellate judges around the country might have without that trial court experience.”

Choosing Lemons as the new chief justice shows the justices’ confidence in his administrative abilities as well as his diplomatic skills in dealing with the General Assembly, Sinclair says.

From an early age, Lemons wanted to be a lawyer. He grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where his dad worked protection detail for President Truman as a Secret Service agent.

“My experience as a probation officer allowed me to watch lawyers in private practice as they represented their clients and gave me a very interesting look at prosecution from the Commonwealth’s side,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to see how judges operate.”

The experience inspired him to go to law school, where one day his friend and classmate G. Moffett Cochran ’76 rounded up students for a cocktail party to be hosted by his parents, Lee and George M. Cochran ’36, then a justice on the Supreme Court of Virginia and formerly a state legislator.

“It’s one thing to talk about the things that you’d like to do; it’s another thing to actually talk to someone who is doing it,” Lemons says. “That’s the sort of experience that allows people to visualize what their future might be.”
Not to say that he imagined reaching his current position.

“I never in a million years thought I’d be on the Supreme Court of Virginia—goodness, no,” he says. “That’s not the sort of thing you realistically anticipate when you’re a law student. But what you saw in George Cochran was an extraordinarily successful person who was engaged in public service and politics and the practice of law at the highest possible professional level. It was inspiring.” (Years later, Lemons had the chance to appear before the elder Cochran in court, and eventually even got to sit beside him when Cochran was called back to the bench after retirement.)

During law school, Lemons became a student assistant to Al Turnbull ’62, then assistant dean for admissions and career services. The experience helped propel Lemons straight from graduation onto the faculty, where he served as an assistant professor and assistant dean for two years.

“This is an amazing thing, that he would graduate and instantly become an assistant dean,” Turnbull says. “He’s rigorous, he’s firm, but he’s also compassionate and thoughtful. It was these qualities that led us to feel confident that he would do a great job.”

Though Lemons left the University to go into private practice in 1978, he did not stop teaching. One of the themes at his chief justice investiture ceremony was his longstanding commitment to the education of lawyers; while serving as a judge at multiple levels, Lemons has continued to teach in law schools at the University of Richmond as well as Washington and Lee University.
During his years in private practice with Durrette, Irvin, Lemons & Bradshaw in Richmond, Lemons handled civil and criminal trial work, working juvenile-court cases pro bono on the side.

By the time he ascended to the bench of the circuit court in Richmond in 1995, he was mulling alternatives for handling drug defendants.

“If you’re a probation officer in Virginia, in juvenile or adult courts, you will quickly find out that addiction to substances—alcohol, prescription drugs, or other illegal narcotic drugs—is a major problem,” Lemons says. “If you have people who are not presenting a threat to the public safety but they have an addiction problem, it seems to me that it makes a lot of sense to try to deal with it differently than a one-size-fits-all, lock-’em-up mentality.”

Lemons’ drug court—a special docket within the existing court, not a separate court—was one of three being developed in Virginia at the time; the others were in Roanoke and Charlottesville. Today there are more than 2,800 such courts across the country.

“Justice Lemons was a pioneer in that process in the Richmond area,” Sinclair says. “The fact that it was handled so well and so successfully helped the Commonwealth to develop a broader version of that drug-court type program to divert appropriate candidates from the revolving door of the prison system.”

At a ceremony in 2013 marking the 15th official year of the Richmond Adult Drug Treatment Court, Lemons spoke openly about his own cousin, a nurse and honorably discharged service member, who weeks earlier had died of a heroin overdose.

“Addiction is no respecter of persons,” Lemons says. “It’s all races, all genders, all religious traditions—from the poorest to the most wealthy people.”
While some judges once warned him that becoming a so-called drug-court judge could derail his career—that legislators would oppose it and decline to re-elect him—and though the concept maintains detractors, Lemons considers it one of his greatest accomplishments.

“He is one of the leaders in America on the role of professionalism and lawyer professional self-development,” Sinclair says. “He has devoted a tremendous amount of time to those projects as part of his judicial mission. If there’s anyone who would exemplify professionalism and thoughtful discharge of the lawyer’s and judge’s responsibilities, Justice Lemons would certainly be that person.”

Professionalism is among the values Lemons reiterates when swearing in lawyers as new members of the Virginia bar. Professionalism “is distinct from ethics,” says L. Steven Emmert ’82, a leading appellate litigator in Virginia who closely watches the court and publishes the website Virginia Appellate News & Analysis. “Ethics is the bare minimum that you have to do in order to ensure the bar doesn’t yank your license. But professionalism is far higher, far more aspirational. And you can expect him to emphasize that.”

When court is not in session, Lemons draws strength from the vistas surrounding his office in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Like the other justices, he maintains chambers in downtown Richmond as well as an office where he primarily lives. The Supreme Court of Virginia is unlike most appellate courts in that it hears oral arguments in six separate weeks of the year and releases its decisions on six specified days, rather than releasing opinions on a rolling basis as they get signed off on by members of the court.

When in Nellysford, his home of six years, Lemons works on opinions with his 11-year-old French Bulldog rescue, Kirby, asleep at his feet.

And in Richmond, he works beside an artificial lemon tree—a gift from a group of drug-court defendants who wrote notes of thanks on the lemons.

“It reminds me every day,” Lemons says, “that there are real people behind these cases.”

Find Donald Lemons’ remarks delivered at his investiture in January at

Through the Years:
UVA Law Alumni on the Supreme Court of Virginia*

William Daniel Jr. 1829

William Joseph Robertson 1842


Alexander Rives 1829


Edward Calohill Burks 1842


Lunsford Lomax Lewis 1867

Thomas Turner Fauntleroy Jr. 1844

John Alexander Buchanan 1871 ‡

George Moffett Harrison 1870 ‡

James Keith 1860 ‡

Stafford Gorman Whittle 1871

Joseph Luther Kelly 1889

Robert Riddick Prentis 1876

Martin Parks Burks 1872

Edward Watts Saunders 1882 ‡

Jesse Felix West 1886 ‡

Richard Henry Lee Chichester 1892

Joseph Chinn 1890 ‡

Claude Vernon Spratley 1906

Lemuel Franklin Smith ’16

Lawrence Warren I’Anson ’31

Thomas Christian Gordon Jr. ’38

Albertis Sydney Harrison Jr. ’28

George Moffett Cochran ’36

Richard Harding Poff ’48

William Carrington Thompson ’39

Charles Stevens Russell ’48

John Charles Thomas ’75

Henry Hudson Whiting ’49

Elizabeth Bermingham Lacy LL.M. ’92

Barbara Milano Keenan LL.M. ’92

Cynthia D. Kinser ’77

Donald W. Lemons ’76

G. Steven Agee ’77

S. Bernard Goodwyn ’86

Cleo E. Powell ’82

*J.D. or LL.B. earned unless otherwise noted
‡ Studied or read the law