Leroy R. Hassell Sr., 55

Leroy R. Hassell Sr., Virginia's first black chief justice, dies at 55

Leroy R. Hassell was given the oath of office as chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court by Justice Barbara Milano Keenan in 2003.
Leroy R. Hassell was given the oath of office as chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court by Justice Barbara Milano Keenan in 2003. (Steve Helber)
By Adam Bernstein
Thursday, February 10, 2011

Leroy R. Hassell Sr., 55, a lawyer and civic leader who became the first black chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court and who launched a commission that helped modernize the state's mental health care system, died Feb. 9 in Richmond.

Justice Hassell, whose 12-year term was to end in 2014, relinquished the title of chief justice on Jan. 31. He had recently been hospitalized for an infection, but the exact cause of death was not disclosed.

A Virginia native, Justice Hassell (pronounced ha-SELL) was a Harvard Law School graduate who began his legal career in Richmond. He advanced rapidly to a partnership at McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe, one of the nation's largest law firms. While working at the firm in the 1980s, he chaired the Richmond School Board and grew involved in other civic activities.

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D), who once praised Justice Hassell's "wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and an extraordinary amount of energy," appointed him to the state Supreme Court in 1989.

Justice Hassell replaced John Charles Thomas, who in 1983 had become the first African American justice on the court and who stepped down for medical reasons.

Over the years, Justice Hassell developed a reputation as a moderate jurist.

"He's a guy who listens to the arguments," Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown Law School professor, told The Washington Post in 2003. "He's not predisposed."

Justice Hassell was a particularly forceful and prescient voice on cases that involved racial discrimination.

In 2001, the court ruled 4-3 that a state ban on cross burning violated the First Amendment right to free expression. Justice Hassell dissented from the ruling, which overturned the convictions of a Ku Klux Klan leader and two other men.

"I stand second to none in my devotion to the First Amendment's mandate that most forms of speech are protected, irrespective of how repugnant and offensive the message uttered or conveyed may be to others," Justice Hassell wrote in his opinion.

"However," he continued, "contrary to the view adopted by the majority in these appeals, the First Amendment does not permit a person to burn a cross in a manner that intentionally places another person in fear of bodily harm."

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Justice Hassell in a 2003 ruling upholding the Virginia statute that made it a crime to burn a cross, as long as the act was intended as a direct threat and not merely as a symbolic gesture.

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