The Supreme Court of Virginia has selected Justice Cynthia D. Kinser to be the first woman to serve as chief justice of the court.
Kinser is third in seniority on the court to the current chief, Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr., and Justice Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. Hassell will step down on Jan. 31 after eight years as the state’s chief judicial officer. He will remain as one of the court’s seven justices. Koontz has reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 and must retire from the court next year.
Gov. George Allen appointed Kinser to the court in 1997 after the General Assembly was unable to agree on a candidate to replace retiring Justice Roscoe B. Stephenson Jr.
Allen and Kinser graduated from University of Virginia law school in 1977, and both clerked for U.S. District Judge Glen M. Williams in Abingdon.
After completing her clerkship, Kinser, 58, had a brief private practice as one of the few women trial attorneys in Southwest Virginia before she was elected commonwealth’s attorney in Lee County in 1979. Except for five years when she was in elementary school in Roanoke and her time as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee and in law school, she has lived in Lee County.
Kinser returned to private practice in the county in 1984 and became a U.S. magistrate judge for the Western District of Virginia in 1990. She usually sat in Abingdon and Big Stone Gap.
As a justice, she is considered one of the court’s most conservative members, especially in criminal cases.
Petite and soft-spoken, she is courteous to the lawyers who appear before her and less active than some justices in questioning them, but she is persistent when does ask a question. When there’s something that troubles her, she will press to get a satisfactory answer or until it’s obvious that the lawyer doesn’t have one, said L. Steven Emmert, a Virginia Beach appellate specialist who appears frequently before the court.
The court had three women members as recently as 2007, but the retirement of Justice Elizabeth B. Lacy in 2007 and the departure of Justice Barbara Milano Keenan for the 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals last year has left Kinser as the only woman on the court.
Lacy was in line to become the first female chief justice because she was second in seniority to long-time Chief Justice Harry L. Carrico when the senior member of the court automatically became chief justice.
However, there was talk before 2002 General Assembly session of changing the law to allow the legislature to designate the chief justice. Members of the court objected, and the concept was changed to allow the court itself to select the chief for a four-year term.
After Carrico announced his retirement, Hassell, who was next in seniority after Lacy, became the first justice to be selected as chief by his colleagues. He was the state’s first African-American chief justice.
State law places no limits on the number of terms that a justice can serve as chief, but Hassell took the position under an informal court policy that he would serve no more than two terms.
Kinser will preside over a rapidly evolving court. When Koontz’s successor is named next year, four justices will have been on the court less than four years.
Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn replaced Lacy. Justice LeRoy F. Millette Jr. was elevated from the Virginia Court of Appeals to replace Justice G. Steven Agee in 2008 after Agee was appointed to the 4th Circuit, and the General Assembly elected Justice William C. Mims earlier this year after Keenan went to the 4th Circuit.
Kinser is almost certainly the westernmost chief justice and probably the westernmost justice to serve on the court. Her chambers are in Pennington Gap, less than 15 miles from the Kentucky border.
She will be the first chief justice not to have her chambers in Richmond since Justice Harry L. Carrico replaced Justice Lawrence W. I’Anson, who lived in Hampton Roads, in 1981.
Court officials say the justices and court administrators are linked electronically so that will be less of a problem than it would have been even 10 years ago.
Kinser’s husband, Allen, is a retired teacher and coach at Lee County High School. Her son, Charles, is an attorney in Jonesville. She also has a daughter and three grandchildren.