Living the Law

Supreme Court of Virginia Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser goes the distance for her job.

Tim Cox

Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser in her Pennington Gap Chambers.

Even as a child growing up in Lee County, which is about as far southwest as you can go without leaving the Old Dominion, Cynthia Fannon Kinser liked to think for herself.

Her father was a livestock auctioneer, and her mother taught school. Extended family living nearby offered an extended network of love and support. Today, at 61, she is still living on the farm of her childhood, near Pennington Gap. But she is also spending about a quarter of her time in Richmond, where the soft-spoken Kinser has served as the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia since 2011, the first woman to hold the title.

Born in Pennington Gap, Kinser spent the early 1960s with her family in Roanoke and Botetourt counties. As a teenager, after moving back to Lee County in 1965, she became more and more active in the 4-H club. There, she says she learned how to make presentations and to appreciate a diversity of people, which she credits for building self-confidence and instilling character.

Later, she set her sights on the University of Virginia, where she completed her law degree in 1977: “I knew it was a really, really good law school, so that was my first choice.” She spent most of the 1990s as a federal judge in western Virginia and then, in 1997, was appointed by Gov. George Allen to the state supreme court. (The General Assembly elected her to her first 12-year term the following year.)

Married to her high school sweetheart, Allen, Kinser routinely makes the six-hour commute from her farm near the heart of Lee County to Richmond, where she spends the equivalent of about three months a year. It would be closer, in fact, for her to drive to the state capitols of West Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky or Tennessee. But moving has not been an option, she says.

The Kinsers have two adult children—Terah, an interior designer who lives in Navarre, Florida; and Adam, an attorney who lives on the farm (and practices law with H. Ronnie Montgomery, a lawyer with whom Kinser worked in the late 1970s). “Our home is here,” she explains. “I like being on the farm with the cattle. I like working outside.”

Though she is the head of the highest state court in Virginia, Kinser can be found doing chores (her way of relaxing, she says) and playing piano or organ on Sunday mornings at First United Methodist Church in Pennington Gap. The state supreme court’s own salt of the earth.

Nobody in my family was an attorney. I didn’t grow up around courthouses or lawyers or anything like that. I just knew that was what I wanted to do.

When I studied Virginia history, part of it included a little bit about government, and I just thought that was the most interesting thing I had ever heard about in my life.

I would go to Virginia Tech every summer for a week for 4-H events. I met people from so many different parts of the state, and so few of them knew anything about Southwest Virginia; few of them even realized that Virginia extended past Roanoke. And I began to realize just how far we lived from everywhere else in Virginia.

I won a trip to the National 4-H Congress in Chicago when I was a senior in high school. It was the first time I ever flew on a plane. That was when you dressed up to fly, and my mother made me wear a hat. I was not happy about that. The hat was in the suitcase coming home.

We didn’t have a lot of extra money. We thought about every dollar that we spent, and we didn’t waste it. So that certainly taught me to appreciate the value of hard work and saving money and using it wisely.

I think that you have to learn to appreciate people. They all have value, and you hope that, at the end of the day, you have treated them fairly and with respect.

Being a judge is isolating because you can’t interact with the lawyers the way you do when you’re a lawyer. But being an appellate judge is even more so, because you’re not in court on a daily basis.

As supreme court judges, we are only reviewing the record that was created in the lower court, and so we will be reading the transcripts of testimony and briefs that the parties filed. The nice thing about the job is the variety of issues that we deal with on a daily basis. It always keeps me challenged.

I’m constantly working at night and on weekends. I’m never away from it, and I’m not saying that’s good.

If you go to oral arguments much, you will often hear one of us asking hypothetical questions. And what we’re really trying to do is to figure out if we decide this case a certain way, how does it affect the law for cases down the road? So you constantly worry about that. We call them “unintended consequences.” It’s what causes you to lose sleep at night.

I had people tell me that I couldn’t be a lawyer. And if I had listened to those people, I couldn’t have had the opportunities that I’ve had. You know, there weren’t that many women going to law school.

One of the most rewarding things you can do as an attorney is when you help somebody get something that they’re entitled to or solve a problem. When they say, “Thank you,” you can tell that it’s from the depths of their heart. You’ve helped them in a way that they weren’t able to help themselves.

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