In 1988, Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr., judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, was approached by the national American Inns of Court leadership to form an American Inn of Court in Richmond, Virginia. He enlisted Emanuel Emroch, E. Milton Farley, III, and James C. Roberts, three of the leading trial lawyers in Richmond, to petition the American Inns of Court Foundation for a charter. The result was the creation of the John Marshall Inn of Court on May 16, 1990, as the 116th American Inn of Court.
For the first few years, the Inn met in the chambers of Judge Merhige in the historic federal courts building overlooking Capitol Square. The Inn now, and for many years, holds its regular meetings in the Robert R. Merhige, Jr. Moot Courtroom of the University of Richmond School of Law, followed by a reception in the adjoining atrium of the law school. The Inn held its first annual banquet on May 9, 1995, when John H. OBrion was the president.
When Cheryl Ragsdale was the president of the Inn, in 1998, there was a visiting professor of law at the University of Richmond, who was active in his Inn in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He requested and received a temporary associate membership in the John Marshall Inn of Court during his visit to Richmond. He observed that the Inn had no student members, unlike his Inn in Fayetteville, and that having student members added to the goals and purposes of the American Inns of Court. Ms. Ragsdale thought that that was a good idea, and she invited a member of the faculty of the University of Richmond School of Law to nominate six law student members each year, one for each team in charge of a monthly program. This tradition has continued, and many of the student members have later joined the Inn as full members.
In 1999, one of the Inn's charter members, Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr., was given one of the national foundation's highest honors, the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Award for Professionalism and Ethics. This was particularly gratifying to the members of the John Marshall Inn as Justice Powell was a long-time resident of Richmond and a leader of the Richmond bar. This award was presented to Judge Merhige in the United States Supreme Court's Court Room in Washington, D.C., followed by a dinner in the gallery next to it. A large number of the John Marshall Inn's membership attended the ceremony, and, on the following morning, the Inn hosted a brunch at the Metropolitan Club in Washington in Judge Merhige's honor.
In May of 2000, the Inn celebrated its tenth anniversary with a memorable weekend in Charlottesville. This was organized by one of its members, John Charles Thomas, who was a former justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, a visitor of the University of Virginia, and a trustee of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. The weekend included a dinner in the Dome Room of the Rotunda of the University of Virginia and a private tour of the second floor of Monticello, which is normally inaccessible to the general public because of the narrowness of the staircases.
The John Marshall Inn chooses its new members during the summer recess, and then officially introduces and welcomes them to the Inn at a cocktail party, which is always the first meeting of the next academic year. This is typically the first Tuesday in September after Labor Day. For many years, this gathering was hosted by Judge Merhige at his house, and it was a good time. In 2001, this meeting was scheduled for September 11, a date that became a fateful day in American history. It was a day of bewilderment and confusion, as no one knew what was going on or why. That afternoon, the membership of the Inn received word from Judge Merhige's chambers that the Inn meeting would proceed as scheduled. At that meeting, Judge Merhige gave a moving address to the members of the Inn that America would not be intimidated by evil persons of bad will, but that we would continue to pursue our national purposes of equal justice and of life under the rule of law. Many years later, in the fall of 2017, one of the monthly meetings of the Inn featured a presentation by the Hon. David J. Novak, a magistrate judge of the federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia, who had been one of the lead prosecutors of Zacaris Moussaoui, in the same court in the Alexandria division. Mr. Moussaoui was one of the architects of those attacks of 9-11-2001. Judge Novak's presentation featured a moving behind the scenes explanation of the investigations, arrest, trial, and conviction of one of the perpetrators of that evil day.
In 2003, one of the Inn members, Maya Eckstein, was given the Sandra Day O'Connor Award for Professional Service by the American Inns of Court Foundation. Inn member Christy Kiely received the award in 2007.
Under the leadership of the president of the Inn, Justice Donald W. Lemons of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and the executive committee of the Inn, the by-laws of the Inn were revised in 2003 to institute term limits for the leadership of the Inn. This resulted in a re-vitalization of the Inn. (Justice Lemons later became the President of the national American Inns of Court Foundation, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and an honorary Master of the Bench of the Middle Temple.)
By 2003, the John Marshall Inn of Court had grown too large, and there were many lawyers in Richmond who were actively seeking membership. And so the decision was taken to split the Inn in two. The current president agreed to serve a second one-year term, and the president-elect agreed to be the president of a new Inn. The membership was asked to elect to remain or to join the new Inn, and the result was close to an even decision. And thus was formed the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., American Inn of Court. In many cities, the second American Inn of court was created by lawyers who wanted to join the existing Inn but were denied that opportunity; so they founded rival Inns out of the frustration of exclusion. In Richmond, this was avoided as described. The happy result was that both the established Inn and the new Inn quickly grew in membership back to the desired, optimal size without rancor and in the spirit of professional collegiality pursuant to the ideals of the national organization.
There was also time for recreation and history. In June 2004, the John Marshall Inn spent a week in London visiting the historic sites of legal London as the guests of the Middle Temple. Later, in the fall of that year, the Inn hosted Heather McMahon, a London barrister, as a Pegasus Scholar in Richmond.
The John Marshall Inn of Court celebrated its twentieth anniversary in conjunction with the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Inn's tenth anniversary with an elegant weekend in Williamsburg at the Williamsburg Lodge in 2010.
While serving as the president of the John Marshall Inn, Lisa Sharp, from 2014 to 2016, was also the treasurer of the American Inns of Court Foundation. She was a barrister trustee of the Foundation from 2008 to 2016.
In 2016, the president of the Inn was Virginia Bondurant. She was the first former student member to serve in that position. One of her successes was to propose as a new member her father, The Hon. Thomas O. Bondurant, Jr., Judge of the General District Court of Henrico County. He was, of course, duly elected. (Usually, nepotism works the other way, with parents looking out for their children.)
In October 2018, the Inn hosted Jamie Scott and Anthony Eskander in connection with the 2018 Pegasus Scholar’s program. During the five days the Scholars were in Richmond, the Inn offered the Scholars multiple opportunities to interact with the greater Richmond bar, including visits with federal and state judges and justices, members of the Office of the Federal Public Defender and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, and the private bar. The Scholars also toured the Henrico County Jail, lead by Sheriff Mike Wade (at their request), and spent Halloween at the Executive Mansion. Other highlights of the week included a private tour of the American Civil War Museum, a reception at the John Marshall House attended by Inn members, the local bar, and Chief Justice Lemons and Justice Mims, Justice Kelsey and Justice McClanahan of the Supreme Court of Virginia, lunch with members of the Office of the Attorney General, tours of Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown, and walking tours of Church Hill and Belle Isle.
In 2019, the Inn celebrated two outstanding accomplishments. First, the American Inns of Court awarded the Inn an Outstanding Program Award for the Inn's Justice in the Classroom Program, a special partnership with the John Marshall Foundation and the Virginia Law Foundation. Second, Chief Justice Lemons, a past President, received the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Award for Professionalism and Ethics from the American Inns of Court at the annual Celebration of Excellence Gala in October 2019 at the Supreme Court.
In 2020, the Inn celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. Plans are underway to commemorate this important milestone.