The Court of the University (1826)
    by Catherine A. Creighton, Undergraduate Research Assistant (History Degree)

The Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia convened at the University for a regular meeting on Tuesday, October 3, 1826. At the Visitors’ meeting the previous day, James Madison was elected to serve as Rector of the Visitors after the death of the previous Rector, Thomas Jefferson.  Also in attendance at this meeting were five additional members of the Board: James Breckenridge, Joseph Carrington Cabell, John Hartwell Cocke, Chapman Johnson, and James Monroe.


On this Tuesday, the Visitors specifically gathered to discuss a proposal to establish a “Court of Record” at the University. This proposal was contingent on approval of the Virginia legislature, but assuming that the delegates assented, the Visitors hoped to inaugurate “The Court of the University” at the commencement of the University’s next session.


The Visitors had long been concerned with institutionalizing and enforcing student discipline. Even before the University’s first session, the Visitors had intensively outlined and discussed which rules students would be required to comply with and how to punish “offences” of those rules and local laws.[1] By October 1826, the persistence of offenses against these laws, both within and without the precincts of the University, caused the Visitors to begin to believe that a more serious legal institution needed to be created to adjudicate these offences and punish offenders. The Visitors sought to establish a precedent that the laws of the land and University would be enforced to the highest degree.


Judge and Jurisdiction of the Court 


As envisioned by the Visitors, the Court of the University was to be presided over by a single judge. Rather than hire an outside Virginia judge or attorney to serve in this position, the Visitors decided to ask the current Professor of Law to serve in this capacity. In exchange for these services, the Professor would receive additional compensation in the form of “a salary not exceeding five hundred dollars.” Furthermore, in his role as Judge of the Court of the University, the Professor of Law would be entitled to the same rights, privileges, and powers as a “Conservator of the Peace” within Albemarle County. As a result, the Judge of the University Court could “arrest any one for appearance” in his court or any other court “where the offence may be cognisable.”


Moreover, in contrast to the limited jurisdiction of previously implemented judicial bodies within the University, the Visitors intended for the Court of the University to have “concurrent jurisdiction with the County court of Albemarle.” As such, in addition to prosecuting offences against the University Enactments, the Court of the University would be able to prosecute “all offences against the laws of the land” committed by anyone within the precincts of the University, and any crimes committed by University students anywhere in Albemarle County. To make the Court of the University as effective as possible, the Visitors also specified that it would have the power to “issue process beyond its jurisdiction” and “compel obedience to its lawful process & lawful orders.”


Terms of the Court


The Visitors modeled the “proceedings” of the court and its general process of “punishment of offences” on the Common-Law Courts of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Visitors also specified that the Court would convene on both monthly and quarterly “terms.” It was agreed that quarterly terms of the Court would be held on Mondays in November, March, May, and July. “All cases cognisable in the Court” could be heard during these months. Alternatively, monthly terms of the Court would be held in October, December, January, February, and June. These terms of the Court would only hear cases “not tried by a jury.”


Grand and Petit Juries


In the same vein as other Common-Law Courts of Virginia and Albemarle County, the Court of the University was designed to be able to hear cases concerning both questions of fact and questions of law. To make determinations based on the evidence presented in both of these types of cases, the Visitors specified that the Court of the University would alternately impanel petit juries[2] and grand juries[3].


The Visitors proposed very specific instructions for the selection of grand jurors in the Court of the University. At the commencement of each quarterly term, the Proctor of the University[4] would summon a grand jury of eligible Albemarle County residents. The Visitors stipulated that anyone currently eligible to serve on a jury in Albemarle County would likewise be eligible to serve on the grand jury of the Court of the University. In addition,  “all students of the University above the age of nineteen years” and all University hotelkeepers were eligible for grand jury service in the Court of the University. So that the composition of the grand jury of the Court of the University might remain as representative as possible of the interests, opinions, and experiences of the students of the University, the Visitors also stipulated that “a due proportion” of University students should be “impaneled on every grand jury.” Once an adequate number of these jurors was summoned, they would be “impaneled and solemnly charged on oath” before any legal proceedings could commence.


With regard to the composition of petit juries in the Court of the University, the Visitors had different opinions and requirements. In contrast to their commitment to student representation in the composition of grand juries, students were barred from service on petit juries in the Court of the University. However, University hotelkeepers, and other residents of Albemarle County eligible for general jury service remained eligible for petit jury service. Moreover, the same procedures with regards to empanelment and swearing in of jurors by oral oath were followed with petit jurors.



Officers of the Court


The Visitors also discussed the appointment, qualifications, responsibilities, and salaries of several officials whose assistance was necessary for the daily operations of the Court of the University.


The first official the Visitors discussed was “the sergeant of the Court.” As they had chosen to do with regards to the Judge of the Court, the Visitors appointed an existing University employee to this position. In this case, they selected the University Proctor. As acting Sergeant of the Court, the Proctor was charged with summoning all juries, executing all processes —“original, mesne, and final“[5]— of the court, and performing the same duties as “are performed by the Sheriff of a county.” Likely out of recognition that these duties were certain to impose a considerable time commitment on the already-burdened Proctor, he was permitted to appoint deputies to serve as his assistants in this role.


In addition to functioning as the sheriff of the Court of the University, the Visitors designated that the Sergeant of the Court would be “conservator of the peace.” In accordance with this title, the Sergeant was empowered to “command the posse comitatus[6] to “enable” his ability to exercise his “lawful authority.” The Visitors resolved that the Sergeant would be compensated for the performance of these services in like manner as a county sheriff.


The next official discussed by the Visitors was the jail-keeper. Because it was unknown when, if ever, the Court of the University would construct its own jail, the Visitors negotiated the right of the Court of the University to jointly use the jail of Albemarle County. The Visitors also hired the existing Albemarle County jail-keeper to ensure the detention of all persons lawfully committed to jail by the Court of the University. The Visitors explicitly instructed the jail-keeper to treat these convicts “as if they had been committed by the authority of the County Court.”

The Visitors also discussed the need for the Court of the University to “appoint its own clerk.” The Minutes of the Board of Visitors do not mention appointing some University official to serve in this position. Thus it seems likely that the clerk may have been hired by the Board of Visitors specifically to serve in this capacity. The likelihood that the clerk was hired from outside the University is further substantiated by the mention of the Visitors’ requirement that the clerk give “bond and security” to the Visitors for the performance of his assigned duties. While this was not an uncommon stipulation in University hiring, it would have likely been gratuitous if the individual had already given bond and security pursuant to some other position at the University. Regardless of his origin, however, the Visitors intended for the clerk of the Court of the University to fulfill the same role as the clerk for the Court of Albemarle County, and promised to compensate him accordingly.


Finally, the Visitors discussed the requirements for attorneys in the Commonwealth to argue before the Court of the University. Of chief concern in this regard was the need to appoint a Prosecutor to represent the University in the Court. The Visitors agreed that this prosecutor would be selected from the pool of licensed and “eligible attornies” in the Commonwealth. In addition, the Visitors stipulated that the Prosecutor would receive similar fees and compensation for his services as a Commonwealth’s Attorney received in “a Superior Court of law.” It was also agreed upon that licensed attorneys need not undertake additional certification beyond an oath of office to be able to appear before the Court of the University.


Proposal to Legislature


The Visitors concluded this meeting by discussing how best to present these plans for the Court of the University to the legislature at its next session. It was decided that as Rector of the Board, James Madison should lead the presentation “on behalf of the rector and Visitors.” With that business settled, the meeting was adjourned.




[1] For further reading on the other means implemented by the Visitors please see the additional interpretative essays on this site, “The Proctor, The University, and the Law” and “Offences, Punishment, and Early Student Self-Governance at the University,” as well as the Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia which are linked in XML format on this site.

[2] Juries charged with finding the facts of an offense.

[3] Juries charged with returning an indictment.

[4] For clarity, I’ve chosen to refer to this individual as Proctor in this instance, but in this capacity he would be acting not as Proctor but as Sergeant of the Court of the University.

[5] Refers to any court document, bearing the signature of a court clerk, which must be “served on” a party named in the document or legal proceeding. Original process generally refers to process of civil cases founded upon the original writ, while mesne process refers to an intermediate stage founded on the suit, and final process refers to the execution of the suit and thus its conclusion.

[6] Refers to the common-law authority of a county sheriff, or other law officer, to conscript any able-bodied man to assist him in keeping the peace, or to pursue and arrest a felon; The italics are my own. 



University of Virginia. Board of Visitors Minutes. 3 October 1826: n.p.


Cite This Entry


Creighton, Catherine A. "The Court of the University (1826)." JUEL, June 18, 2015.


First published: June 18, 2015 | Last modified: July 2, 2018


Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, October 1826