Preston White Campbell was born in Abingdon and was the son of Ellen Sheffey White Campbell and Edward McDonald Campbell. His father died in 1878. Campbell read law locally and was admitted to the bar in 1896. He attended the University of Virginia but did not graduate. Campbell practiced law in Abingdon for fourteen years. In 1914 he married Louise Elwood Howard. They had three sons.
In May 1901 Campbell was elected to represent the district comprising Washington County and the city of Bristol in a convention called to revise the constitution of Virginia. He was the fifth member of the Campbell family to represent Washington County or its predecessor, Fincastle County, in a state convention since 1776. Campbell served on the Committee on the Bill of Rights. He announced at the beginning of the convention that he would support a provision to depoliticize county school superintendents. Campbell seldom spoke during the convention. He voted with the majority on the three most important votes that the convention took: in favor of restrictive suffrage provisions that the convention adopted on April 4, 1902, to proclaim the constitution in effect without submitting it to a ratification referendum, and to adopt the new constitution.
Campbell served from 1911 to 1914 as commonwealth’s attorney for Washington County. On March 25, 1914, he was appointed to the vacant judgeship of the Twenty-third Circuit, comprising Scott, Smyth, and Washington counties, and was subsequently elected to a full term. On January 23, 1924, Democrats in the General Assembly nominated Campbell for a vacant seat on the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The assembly formally elected him six days later. Campbell qualified for his seat on the bench on January 31, 1924, and began his term the following day. After the death of Chief Justice Robert R. Prentis on November 25, 1931, Campbell became chief justice and served until his retirement on October 1, 1946.
Campbell wrote 528 opinions while on the Supreme Court of Appeals. Perhaps the most memorable was his solo dissent in the 1945 case Staples v. Gilmer. In 1944 the General Assembly had submitted to the voters a proposal for calling a convention to draft an amendment to the state constitution for certain voter registration andexemptions. The assembly’s proposal restricted the convention to the consideration of that topic only. When a case that reached the Supreme Court of Appeals asked whether the assembly could place limits on a convention, the court upheld the power of the assembly, but Campbell dissented and stated forcefully that the assembly lacked constitutional authority to limit the work of a constituent convention.
Campbell died during the night of July 2–3, 1954, in a hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee, and was buried in Knollkreg Memorial Park, in Abingdon.