Cynthia D. Kinser
Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Toll Fellows Program Director
Cynthia D. Kinser made history last February when she became the first female chief justice to preside over the Virginia Supreme Court.
A soft-spoken woman of humble roots, Kinser still lives on and works her family farm in western Virginia when she’s not reading legal briefs or writing opinions. Though she decided at a young age to pursue a legal career, it was not a blind ambition to sit on the bench that propelled Kinser to the state’s highest judicial post. It was, instead, a career built on quiet determination and good old-fashioned hard work—character traits she credits her parents with instilling.
“I didn’t necessarily aspire to be a judge,” said Kinser. “I just went to law school with the dream of becoming a good attorney. After school, I clerked for District Judge Glen M. Williams and thought it would be nice to one day be a judge, but really just set out to be the best attorney I could be.”
Her parents taught and inspired her to do her best in everything she did.
“So I tackled every case I worked on and worked hard to gain a good reputation and it paid off,” said Kinser.
Kinser has a lot of hard work cut out for her as she will be leading the judiciary during very trying times. Virginia, like most states, faces significant budget constraints as the economic downturn continues. And, as in most states, judicial budgets in Virginia are taking huge hits.
“Virginia may be in better shape than some other states,” said Kinser, “but in the past few years we’ve been asked to cut several million dollars each year and that takes a toll.”
Budget cuts have left Virginia courts with a lot of vacant seats on the bench, a situation that makes it difficult to keep the judicial ball rolling. Adequate funding for the court system is necessary, she said, to return Virginia’s judicial system to a fully functioning state.
“There are a lot of judgeships vacant across the state and we’ve faced freezes in filling these vacancies because of budget issues,” said Kinser. “I have a goal to get our funding restored to the level it was at before the current crisis and to get judgeships filled.”
Kinser notes that adequate staffing in the judicial system is about more than just providing a few more lawyers with jobs. When a court system doesn’t have enough judges, cases get backed up and justice isn’t served.
“You’ve got to step back and remember that the judiciary is an independent branch of government and provides a core service,” said Kinser. “When funding is cut so that courts can’t process cases in a timely fashion, then people don’t get their day in court. The old adage, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ is completely accurate. Families, businesses—everyone suffers.
“We’ve seen too many cases where speedy trial rights are at issue and accused parties are set free without being adjudicated guilty or innocent because the court couldn’t hear the cases in time. On the other side of the coin, when business claims don’t get settled in a timely fashion, that dampens the desire for a business to operate in our state.”
Kinser firmly believes cutting court budgets doesn’t save a state money in the long run.
“When you cut money to the judiciary, you don’t save money,” said Kinser. “I think it costs the state more in the long run. Whether it’s lost business revenue or the wasted cost of investigating a crime, locking someone up and then ultimately setting them free without a trial because the court can’t hear the case—state resources are wasted and lost when the judicial system isn’t functioning properly.”
In addition, Kinser points out that state courts are “the face of justice” in the United States. More than 90 percent of all cases are filed in state courts—just another reason she cites for adequately funding the court system.
In light of the challenges facing her, the pressure on Kinser is not being the state’s first female chief justice, but rather the general pressures of leading a vast and troubled court system.
“I don’t think I feel extra pressure just because I’m the first female,” said Kinser. “I guess to the extent that people are maybe watching more closely because of the historical significance, there may be added pressure. But I think everyone who serves as chief justice feels the added pressure of the position and I just want to do a good job regardless of the gender issue.”
While Kinser isn’t preoccupied with her claim to history, she is excited to be part of a growing number of female chief justices across the country.
“I am delighted by the gains women are making in state courts across the country,” said Kinser, “and I’d like to see more female leadership at the federal level. I think states have always been, in a lot of ways, the innovators of government. I am proud that states are taking the lead again in this respect.”