Introduction to Laws in Virginia

What is Virginia Rules?

Virginia Rules is about the rules we live by in Virginia. Designed especially for teens, Virginia Rules provides information about the laws in Virginia with particular emphasis on how they apply to teens in their day-to-day lives.

Why do teens need to know about laws?

Laws are rules we live by. Not knowing about laws is like trying to play a game or a sport without knowing the rules. It would be difficult to win the game – or even be a good player – without knowing the rules. Knowing about the laws is especially important because our society is based on the “rule of law.”

What does “rule of law” mean?

“Rule of law” means everyone must respect and obey the law. Laws reflect what a society thinks is right or wrong. We expect the legal system that our society has established to protect basic rights, promote order, and punish wrongdoing. An important feature of the “rule of law” is that rules apply to everyone.

Where do laws come from?

Laws come from several different sources.

“Constitutional law” comes from the United States Constitution and the Virginia Constitution which establish the structure of our federal and state governments.

Laws are also enacted by Congress and by the Virginia General Assembly. These laws, enacted by legislative bodies, are called “statutes” and are the primary source of laws in the United States.

Courts have an important role in interpreting laws when there are disputes. The principles and rules of law that courts set forth when they interpret the law establish what is referred to as “case law.”

At the local level, your city council or county board of supervisors can enact rules that are referred to as city or county “ordinances.”

What is constitutional law?

In Virginia, laws of two constitutions apply to you: first, the United States Constitution and, second, the Virginia Constitution.

The U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, after the American Revolution, when the new nation was being established. James Madison, a Virginian, was the primary author; other Virginians who played important roles in writing the U.S. Constitution were Edmund Randolph and George Wythe.

The U.S. Constitution established three branches of the federal government, separating powers among them. The three branches and their primary responsibilities are:

  1. Legislative branch – creates laws

  2. Executive branch – implements and enforces laws

  3. Judicial branch – interprets laws

A decade before the U.S. Constitution was written, the Constitution of Virginia was written by George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Like the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of Virginia established three branches of Virginia government. The three branches and their primary responsibilities are:

  1. Legislative branch – General Assembly, made up of the Senate and the House of Delegates – creates laws

  2. Executive branch – The governor – implements and enforces laws

  3. Judicial branch – The Virginia Supreme Court and lesser state courts – interprets laws

What is the Bill of Rights?

The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. They were introduced by James Madison to the first United States Congress in 1789. Thomas Jefferson was the main proponent of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights places limits on the power of the federal government and protects fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and freedom of religion.

Which rights are protected in the U.S. Bill of Rights?


Right or Protection

1st Amendment

Free speech, religion, press, the right to
peaceably assemble

2nd Amendment

Right to own weapons

3rd Amendment

No forced quartering of soldiers

4th Amendment

No unreasonable searches, seizures, or arrests

5th Amendment

Due process of law

6th Amendment

Rights of the accused

7th Amendment

Jury trial in many civil cases

8th Amendment

No cruel punishment

9th Amendment

More rights than in Constitution

10th Amendment

Rights reserved to state if not federal

What is “statutory” law?

“Statutory” laws are those enacted by legislatures. Federal laws are enacted by Congress and are recorded in the United States Code (USC). In Virginia, state laws are enacted by the Virginia General Assembly and are recorded in the Code of Virginia. The Virginia General Assembly holds a special place in American history as the first representative assembly in the new world. It first met on July 30, 1619, in Jamestown “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” which would provide “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.”

What is the United States Code?

The United States Code (“USC”) is the official record of laws enacted by the U.S. Congress and signed by the president. These laws apply to everyone in every state and U.S. territory.

What is the Code of Virginia?

The Code of Virginia is the official record of laws enacted by the Virginia General Assembly and signed by the governor. These laws apply to everyone in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Code of Virginia is organized into 67 titles dealing with particular topics; titles are organized into chapters. Virginia Rules focuses mainly on information about juvenile courts (Title 16.1), about crimes (Title 18.2), and about education (Title 22.1).

The entire Code of Virginia may be read and searched online at the website of the Virginia General Assembly, Legislative Information System.

What are city or county ordinances?

“Ordinances” are laws passed by cities and counties. In Virginia, city ordinances are enacted by city councils and county ordinances are enacted by county boards of supervisors. These laws apply only to persons in the particular city or county. One example of an ordinance is a curfew law that makes it illegal for someone under a certain age to be out late at night.

What is the difference between criminal law and civil law?

Criminal law defines behavior that is considered to be illegal, such as stealing, and the punishments that may be imposed. Criminal law provides a set of rules for peaceful, safe, and orderly living. Because it is concerned with protecting the community as a whole, the government is empowered to enforce it. A person who breaks these laws may be prosecuted and, if found guilty, may be fined or sent to prison.

Civil law defines the rights and duties of one individual to another. In a civil case, the individual who feels wronged or injured (called a plaintiff or complainant) may sue the other party (called a defendant or respondent), seeking relief.

What is a crime?

A crime is an act that violates a law by doing something prohibited by the law or by not doing something the law says you must do.

How are laws made or changed in Virginia?

The Virginia General Assembly meets every year in Richmond. Hundreds of laws are enacted or changed.

Step 1. Drafting and introduction
A legislator has an IDEA FOR A BILL, usually from a constituent.
The legislative member presents the idea and requests that it be DRAFTED INTO A BILL. In January, when the General Assembly meets, the Delegates and Senators introduce their bills in their respective chambers.

Step 2. Committee action
The bill is REFERRED to a committee.
The members of the committee consider the bill and decide what action to take. This is when the public may speak. After listening to testimony, the committee may vote to recommend the passage or defeat of the bill. They may also offer changes (called amendments). If the committee recommends passage of the bill, it then goes back to the chamber where it was introduced.

Step 3. “Floor” action
The title of the bill must be read or printed in the calendar three times.
FIRST READING: The bill is printed in the calendar or is read by the Clerk.
SECOND READING: The bill may be amended after it has been read a second time. In the House of Delegates, the bill will be debated.
THIRD READING: In the Senate, the bill may be debated. A final vote is taken during the third reading.

Step 4. Voting
If the bill passes, it is then SENT TO THE OTHER CHAMBER where it follows a similar process of committee action, floor debate, amending, and voting. If the bill passes both chambers in the same form, it then goes to the governor. If the bill is amended by the other chamber, it is then returned to the body from which it originated for approval of the amendment.
A COMMITTEE OF CONFERENCE is usually created to resolve any differences between the House of Delegates and Senate.

Step 5. Governor’s action
Once passed in the same form, the bill is then sent to the governor for his or her approval.

  • sign the bill into law.

  • amend the bill and return it to the General Assembly for approval.

  • veto the bill and return it to the General Assembly, where the House of Delegates and Senate may override the governor’s veto by a two-thirds vote of both chambers.

  • take no action and the bill becomes law without his/her signature.

Step 6. Law
Bills that become law during a Regular Session (or the Reconvened Session that follows) are effective on the following July 1, unless otherwise specified.

(Based on Virginia General Assembly brochure for middle school students on “How a Bill Becomes a Law.”)

Do you have a role in making laws?

Yes. We play an important role in making laws. In our democracy, we have a representative at each level of government. If you think a law needs to be enacted or an existing law should be changed, the first step is to write or call your representative.

  • For federal laws, contact your United States representative and/or your two United States senators.

  • For state laws, contact your delegate and/or state senator.

  • For local laws, contact your city council or county board of supervisors’ representative.

Additional Information

About the United States Constitution
Visit the Library of Congress web site.

About the Bill of Rights
Visit the Library of Congress web site.

About the Virginia Constitution
Visit the Virginia General Assembly, Legislative Information Systems, Virginia Law page.

About the Virginia General Assembly
Visit the Virginia General Assembly web site.

About the Code of Virginia
Visit the Virginia General Assembly, Legislative Information Systems, Virginia Law page.

About How Laws Are Enacted
Visit How a Bill Becomes a Law in Virginia.