Kelsey honored with portrait

Published 10:18 pm Friday, March 23, 2018

An event in Suffolk Circuit Court on Friday honored a Suffolk-raised jurist who has singularly distinguished himself in his career on the bench.

The Suffolk Bar Association honored Virginia Supreme Court Justice D. Arthur Kelsey with a commissioned portrait, which was unveiled in the courtroom during the afternoon event. In attendance were Kelsey as well as a number of current and retired local judges and many members of the bar.

“This is a very generous gift,” Kelsey said of the portrait, which depicts him robed and standing, his hand resting on a chair. It eventually will hang in one of the circuit courtrooms alongside portraits of other previous judges.


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The brief event featured humor as well as serious reflection on the gravity of the law profession.

The Hon. Carl Edward Eason Jr., chief judge of the Suffolk Circuit Court, expressed reservation at having the portrait of a sitting Virginia Supreme Court justice in the courtroom.

“This is the guy who’s going to tell me how wrong I am,” Eason joked about the possibility of his decisions getting overturned on appeal. But on the other hand, it could reassure the other parties in the room: “At least there’s someone who will correct Judge Eason,” he said.

With his characteristic soft-spoken musing, Kelsey weighed the “enormous discretion” that Circuit Court judges have. His couple of years on the Fifth Circuit bench were the most challenging of his career, he said. There’s no right way to preside over a trial where every witness says something different, or to oversee the breakup of a family in a civil case.

“There are no books, there are no legal rules that answer these problems,” he said. “It takes wisdom, and I do not believe any of us are born with that. We have to pursue it.”

Kelsey, 56, was raised on his family’s farm in Hobson. He graduated from Old Dominion University with a degree in political science in 1982. He attended the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary and earned his law degree in 1985.

From 1986 to 1999, Kelsey was with the law firm of Hunton & Williams. From 2000 to 2002, he was a judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit of Virginia, which includes Suffolk as well as Southampton and Isle of Wight counties.

Delegate Chris Jones spoke on Friday and recalled when he first nominated Kelsey to the circuit bench.

“The Lord laid it on my heart,” Jones said, recalling that Kelsey said he would talk it over with his wife and pray about it. “I’m very thankful you did that. Your service has been exemplary.”

With a nod to his two former colleagues, retired Circuit Court judges Rodham T. Delk Jr. and Westbrook J. Parker, Kelsey recalled the reception he experienced when he first came to the Fifth Circuit bench after most of his career as a lawyer had been spent in other courts.

“When I arrived here in 2000, I was not one of you,” he said. “I felt like I was answering a call … but I wondered if a community of lawyers and judges would receive me with grace. What I received was not begrudging respect or mere politeness. I received warmth and grace and friendship.”

In 2002, Gov. Mark Warner appointed him to the Court of Appeals of Virginia, where he served until his nomination to the state’s high court.

Kelsey was sworn in to the Virginia Supreme Court on March 6, 2015.

“It was our honor as the Suffolk Bar to be able to recognize one of our own,” said Drew Page, the organization’s president. He said it is the first time in about 100 years that a Suffolk Circuit Court judge has wound up on the Virginia Supreme Court.

The portrait was created by Ramone Photography of Virginia Beach.