by Kari Kilgore
The crowd was big, around three hundred, and the number of judges unprecedented, over thirty, as Lebanon native Teresa Chafin became the newest member of the Court of Appeals of Virginia. The Court hears appeals from circuit courts regarding criminal, domestic relations, and administrative decisions.
Although the Court of Appeals, numbering eleven judges, is statewide in its jurisdiction, each judge maintains a home office where they and their law clerks research cases and draft opinions. The Court and its review panels periodically sit in different parts of the state to hear appeals, and at least three times a year the full Court hears cases in Richmond.
After seven years serving as circuit court judge sitting in Tazewell County, Judge Chafin has chosen to maintain an office in Lebanon. Prior to that she was the chief juvenile and domestic relations judge for the 29th Judicial Circuit, which includes Tazewell, Russell, Buchanan, and Dickenson counties.
The Judge graduated from Lebanon High School and Emory and Henry College before going to law school at the University of Richmond. She then joined her brother, Ben Chafin, in a general law practice in Lebanon. While serving as Southwest Virginia’s first female circuit court judge, she was appointed to many councils, committees, and study groups to help improve the statewide judicial system.
Judge Chafin follows in the footsteps of Buchanan County’s Elizabeth McClanahan, who was the first female Court of Appeals judge from Southwest Virginia. Two years ago, she was elevated to the state’s Supreme Court. Her promotion left the Court of Appeals without anyone from Southwest Virginia and no women jurists at all, although women now make up about half of all law school graduates in the nation.
Thanks to Delegate Terry Kilgore of Scott County, who has for years promoted women and minorities to public positions, and Delegate Will Morefield and his chief of staff, Marty Hall, Judge Chafin was encouraged to seek the support of the Southwest Virginia delegation and statewide leaders to fill a vacant Court of Appeals slot. Delegates Israel O’Quinn, Joe Johnson, and Annie B. Crockett-Stark responded unanimously. Judge Chafin also picked up key support from Delegate Bill Howell, Speaker of the House, and key Senators from both sides of the aisle, including bi-partisan support from Senators Bill Carrico, Phillip Puckett, John Edwards, and Ralph Smith.
Garnering support in a crowded field of strong candidates from across the state was largely due to Judge Chafin’s practical experience and outstanding performance as circuit court judge. After handling approximately 30,000 cases, she only had two of them remanded for further review. In her first year on the circuit bench, she reduced the state’s largest backlog by 40% and each year thereafter reduced it even more so that the public could receive timely decisions.
Delegate Terry Kilgore, who is also a lawyer and the senior Republican leader of the Southwest Virginia delegation, was the keynote speaker at Judge Chafin’s investiture. He often points out that his party had not elected judges to the bench for 130 years after the Civil War, but since taking the majority in Richmond in the 1990s, dozens of women and minority candidates have been provided that honor. “We opened the door for qualified candidates across the state, and many of them from the Democratic side were re-appointed or appointed anew due to bi-partisan support. For the first time in modern history, judges are not selected in Virginia strictly along party affiliations. Our female judges from Southwest Virginia have been outstanding and serve as role models to our region’s young residents, especially those considering law as a profession.”
Kilgore mentioned that although the state’s Court of Appeals is not as diversified as it should be, he believes that the Supreme Court of Virginia is the most diverse in the United States. “That Court includes three women, one of whom is African-American, and four men, one of whom is also African-American, and this make-up reflects the great diversity in our state and nation more than any other high court I know of.”
Kilgore predicted that “As positions open on the Court of Appeals, all qualified candidates will be considered, and from that pool I am certain that greater diversity will be achieved. A court without diversity does not reflect the varied experiences jurists need to examine not only the law but the proper and common sense application of the constitutional safeguards this country is known for. I fully support removing barriers to full participation at all levels of government so that anyone who is hardworking, honest, and motivated by public service can pursue their goals based upon merit.”
Both Justice McClanahan and Judge Chafin had the way toward appellate court positions paved by Lee County’s Cynthia Kinser, who recently became the state’s first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia after serving on that Court for nearly two decades. Southwest Virginia is very proud of these highly accomplished role models.