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The genius of Virginia courtrooms that have jurors in front of the judge

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Human nature leads jurors to look to the trial judge for reassurance, comfort and guidance, in the midst of warring lawyers, legalese, and witnesses running from the dull to interesting to incomprehensible and everything in between.

However, jurors are judges of the facts — and in felony and Class 1 misdemeanor criminal cases must recommend a sentence — and must not let judges sway the jury’s deliberations and decisions.

Enter the genius of courtrooms that have the jury sitting in front of the judge — rather than to the side of the judge — thereby avoiding the jury’s seeing the judge grimace, smile, shake the judge’s head, indicate favoritism to one side or lawyer over the other, nor make other non-verbal reactions nor communications during testimony, lawyer argument, and sidebar conversations during jury trials.

The most common courtroom American design apparently has the jury sitting to the judge’s left or right side. In the Jeffersonian (from Thomas Jefferson) style found in numerous older courthouses outside Northern Virginia, the jury sits in front of the judge, for instance here in the Madison County courthouse.

Jeffersonian courthouses in Virginia at page 40, which in part says:

“In Virginia the bench within-an-apse took on a distinctive modification. In standard Virginia practice this arc embraced a curved bench for petit juries below the justices, in contrast with the use of jury boxes at the side of the justices’ bench in Britain and other colonies.”

This jurors-in-front-of-judges design was already in place long before the Civil War. How sad that this great innovation for the jury location in the courtroom was offset by Virginia’s shameful past of slavery that gave way to its shameful Jim Crow history that carried right into 1966 with the Commonwealth’s going kicking and screaming before the Supreme Court fighting unsuccessfully to salvage segregated marriage in Loving v. Virginia.


Thanks to a fellow Virginia lawyer for recently addressing these Jeffersonian courtrooms. He reports that such a seating location for jurors is found in the courthouses in the city of Charlottesville, and the counties of Albemarle, Culpeper, Madison, Nelson and Orange.