Virginia Supreme Court Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr., born Aug. 17, 1955, died in Richmond on Feb. 9, 2011. He was survived by his widow, two daughters, a son, and a grandchild. Hassell was ill during most of the final year of his service as Chief Justice and had stepped down Jan. 31. The lawyer and civic leader will be remembered as a brilliant legal scholar, a dedicated public servant and a mentor to many in the commonwealth’s legal and political community.
Hassell grew up in Norfolk, played in the band at Lake Taylor Junior High School and graduated from Norview High School, where he was voted “most likely to succeed.” He earned a B.A. from the University of Virginia in 1977 and then went to Harvard Law School, where he earned his J.D. in 1980. He declined a Rhodes scholarship to instead work for the law firm of McGuire Woods.
In a 1989 interview, Hassell said, “I don’t think you should let the fact that you are young or the fact that you are black inhibit your goals in life.”
His achievements were notable: He was the first African American high school student to win the debate tournament at University of Richmond. He served as the youngest chairman of the Richmond City School Board. He appointed a commission to examine the commonwealth’s mental health system. The commission’s recommendations included lessening the standard for involuntary commitment. After the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, the General Assembly enacted the reform.
In 1989, Hassell was appointed to the Virginia Supreme Court by then-Governor Gerald Baliles (D). At 34, he was the second African American justice on the court. In 2002, he was elected Chief Justice by his peers on the court. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. was governor when Hassell became the first African American Virginia Chief Justice on Feb. 1, 2003. They were also former law school classmates and friends.
Baliles was present at Hassell’s last known public appearance on Jan. 21 when the Chief Justice spoke to the Virginia Bar Association. Baliles presented him with the VBA’s Distinguished Service award.
On Feb. 9, 2011, the court announced that Hassell had died. Gerald Baliles said in a statement, “Without question, the chief was a man of consequence. When he spoke, people listened.”
Hassell was memorialized on the floors of the Virginia House and Senate, and in Washington. His casket was taken to the Capitol Feb. 11, escorted by his widow, Linda, and daughters Joanna and Stephanie. Hassell’s body lay in state in the Rotunda of the State Capitol, his casket draped with the flag of Virginia. After a memorial service Feb. 12, 2011 at Faith Landmark Ministries, he was interred at Greenwood Memorial Gardens Cemetery.
Photos By: Bob Brown/Courtesy the Richmond Times-Dispatch.