You Have No Right: Law & Justice in Virginia


The actions of Virginians provide particularly good examples to learn about the role of the law and the courts in defining and protecting the rights and liberties of American citizenship. The state's legal culture and how Virginians interpret the concepts of law and justice are the results of the actions of private citizens and of men and women who hold public office or serve the public as officers of the courts. Legislators make the laws, and judges interpret and apply the laws, but voters, jurors, and citizens are in many ways influential participants in shaping the laws, the legal process, and how courts and other legal institutions function.


Melanie Weismuller with contributions by Barbara C. Batson, Kerry Dahm, John Deal, Mari E. Julienne, Greg Crawford, Trenton Hizer, Gregg D. Kimball, and Brent Tarter


Who is a citizen?

From 1776 to 1868, each state decided what defined someone as a citizen and what rights were granted to citizens and noncitizens. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, defined citizenship.

How can ordinary people use the law to effect change?

Legislators make laws, and courts enforce them, but citizens shape the law, too. In the twentieth century, people who believed that laws requiring racial segregation were unjust used the courts to overturn those laws.

Should you have a right to have children?

Sometimes the law and the courts do not protect individual rights and civil liberties of all citizens, but favor some at the expense of others.

Should you have a right to marry the one you love?

For most of Virginia's history, the government prevented marriage between white people and people of other races. The earliest prohibitions against interracial marriage were clauses in laws regulating slaves and slavery; later prohibitions were in laws defining race.

Can the government take your property? Under what circumstances?

Through a judicial process called condemnation, public officials go to court to acquire private property from owners who do not wish to sell. Legal definitions that courts follow determine whether there is a legitimate public purpose and what just compensation would be for the owners involved.

In a criminal trial, why must a prosecutor prove guilt but a defense attorney need not prove innocence?

The short answer is to guarantee that the right person is convicted and punished and that an innocent person is not. Proving a negative can be very difficult for those accused. Suppose that a crime was committed a few blocks from your home at 3:30 am on January 14,  2009. Could you prove where you were then? The prosecutor must prove that you were there. State and federal bills of rights, legal codes, and rules of court procedure are designed to produce a correct and just verdict, but the judicial system does not always work flawlessly.

Documents, Images, and Transcriptions

Printable PDFs of the images, documents, and transcriptions are available here.

Glossary of Terms