Barbara M. Keenan reached for the telephone in her office in the Washington suburbs: "No," she explained, "It's not St. John's Nursing Home. This is the Court of Appeals of Virginia."

Usually, said Keenan, one of 10 judges on the court, the callers want the state Division of Motor Vehicles. When one caller learned it was the appellate court, not the DMV, she said the person asked: "Well, can you help me?"

A year after it began hearing cases, the Court of Appeals -- the product of years of intense and widely publicized debates in Richmond -- remains a mystery to many Virginians, said Keenan, who was a judge on the Fairfax County Circuit Court before her elevation to the new court.

Yet in its first year the court, whose members operate out of offices like the one in a McLean office building that Keenan shares with fellow Judge Charles H. Duff of Arlington, has heard hundreds of cases. "We're coming together as a team and pulling in a unified way," said Chief Judge Lawrence L. Koontz Jr., who schedules the court's hearings from his office in Salem.

The judges sit in panels of three in existing courtrooms across the state, hearing appeals from Circuit Court cases. Many cases used to be held up as long as two years before they would even be considered for a hearing by the Virginia Supreme Court, and even then defense lawyers complained that the seven state justices were reluctant to overturn lower court rulings.

That criticism appears to be fading as the 10 appellate court judges have begun to issue rulings. "I understand . . . that they're not afraid to tell a Circuit Court judge when there's an error," said attorney Marvin D. Miller of Alexandria, former president of the Virginia College of Defense Attorneys.

"They're starting to come on line," said Miller. "The feeling is that there is someone now who will listen. The thought was that this court would be more attuned to the reality of the law."

"We were the largest state, population-wise, that did not have an intermediate court of appeal," said Keenan. "I believe it's an additional safeguard built into the system, knowing that someone will be reviewing . . . taking a second look."

For years, legislators bitterly debated creating an appeals court, some arguing that all the state needed was to expand the seven-member Virginia Supreme Court and press retired justices into hearing more cases. There was little dispute that more appellate review was needed, according to state Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr., the Botetourt County Democrat who was regarded as the court's leading critic in Richmond.

But the state's high court wanted a court with petitions for appeal, Emick said, and most lawyers in the state wanted an automatic right of appeal, something many states have. Prosecutors opposed an appeals court altogether, arguing that it would add a layer of bureaucracy and not trim the admittedly overwhelming workload facing the state Supreme Court.

What emerged was a compromise: a court with fewer judges than first proposed, fewer automatic rights of appeal, and limited jurisdiction.

The court sits in panels in the state's four regions: Tidewater, Richmond, Northern Virginia and Southwest Virginia. The judges are rotated to ensure that a regional bias does not develop, Keenan said.

The court hears appeals of criminal cases on a discretionary basis, meaning that the judges decide which cases they will hear. (Anyone sentenced to death has an automatic right of appeal directly to the state Supreme Court.)

Felony cases can be appealed to the high court from the appellate court, but the appeals court's decisions in misdemeanors are final if jail sentences are not involved.

The appeals court has jurisdiction in some civil cases, including those that involve domestic issues, workers' compensation and appeals of some state administrative rulings, all of which are automatically heard by the court. For these cases, the appeals court is the court of last resort.

In addition, the court hears appeals of traffic infractions on a discretionary basis, but it does not have jurisdiction over personal injury lawsuits. Those, and other civil cases, still must be appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

In its first year of operation, 1,641 cases were filed with the Court of Appeals, according to Patricia G. Davis, chief deputy clerk of both the new court and the state Supreme Court.

Statistics are not yet available on the number of cases it overturned or how many times its rulings were reversed by the Supreme Court, said Davis. "It is my recollection that only one criminal conviction has been reversed" by the state's highest court, she said.

Of the cases heard by the Appeals Court, about 75, mostly criminal cases, have been appealed to the state Supreme Court, she said.

"That's a good sign," said attorney William D. Dolan III of Arlington, past president of the Virginia State Bar. "It indicates the lawyers are looking at those opinions and advising their clients that this is a well-done appellate job."

The state Supreme Court took so few cases and the backlog there was "so bad it couldn't get any worse," said Dolan. " . . . The net effect was that the Circuit Court was a court of last resort."

Virginia state court administrator Robert Baldwin agreed: "Your chances of going all the way to the Supreme Court were extremely limited . . . . It was up to 30 months -- 2 1/2 years -- before you could expect disposition."

Dolan said that while some lawyers say that intermediate courts only transfer the backlog from one court to another, most are pleased that there is another court where they can go.

"It certainly gives every criminal defendant one more court to deal with," said Fairfax County prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., who did not want the court. "I think when all is said and done . . . it truly doesn't decrease the caseload to any varying degree."

In one area -- the judges selected by the legislature for the court -- all sides appear to agree. They are "quite talented," Emick said. "Keenan and Koontz are quite typical of the people on that court."

"They [legislators] really did pick some competent people," Horan said.

"We operate with each other and think of ourselves as a court of 10," Koontz said.

Keenan said that a panel will sit about three times a month and consider as many as 50 cases during each sitting. A request for a hearing takes about 15 to 20 minutes; oral arguments on the actual appeal typically take 50 minutes, she said.

Both Koontz and Keenan said the judges are very sensitive to the necessity of acting quickly on some cases. In one case, involving allegations of sexual abuse by a parent, the three judges on the panel held a telephone conference to expedite the ruling, she said. Two judges were in Richmond, Keenan was in Fairfax, one attorney was in Chicago and the other was in Alexandria.

Keenan said that in addition to providing a court available to many more people, the Appeals Court will create more guidance for the state's judges and lawyers. In 1984, before the new Appeals Court, the state Supreme Court heard only 44 criminal appeals out of the thousands of cases handled by lower courts.

"Some substantial areas of laws have not been addressed," Keenan said. Court administrator Baldwin agreed: "When you have a limited body of law, because the Supreme Court heard so few cases, that led to more mistakes."

The Appeals Court's first year has focused on administration, "grinding out new procedures," said Baldwin. He said the court "really didn't start cranking out that many cases until the middle of the year."

At issue in the future, said Baldwin, will be whether to expand the appellate court to encompass all of the civil cases.

"All courts, basically, operate on the Peter Principle," said Emick, who predicts that the court will grow and change -- with proposals to make it a court of last resort and increase the number of judges. (Ten is not easily divisible by three, noted clerk Davis.)

The current session of the General Assembly, however, likely will involve no more than "fine-tuning of the [Appeals Court] legislation," said Del. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke County), who was critical of the early appeals court proposals but voted for the court in its final form. Any suggestion to expand the court's jurisdiction will pass, he said, "over my kicking and screaming body."