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

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 11:47 PM

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.

The same year, Justice Hassell succeeded Harry L. Carrico as chief justice - essentially an administrative job overseeing Virginia's court system.

In 2006, Justice Hassell helped create the Virginia Commission on Mental Health Law Reform. The commission - which included politicians, academic experts and members of consumer and family advocacy groups - recommended comprehensive reforms to the state's mental health system after decades of systemic problems.

The justice was not a member of the commission but remained actively involved in its progress.

The commission's work was accelerated after the April 2007 shooting rampage by a mentally disturbed student at Virginia Tech that left himself and 32 others dead.

The General Assembly adopted many of the commission's recommendations, among them easing the state's standard for involuntary commitment to mental hospitals. Those standards had once been among the strictest in the country.

Richard J. Bonnie, the chairman of the commission and a University of Virginia law professor and director of the university's Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, said in an interview Wednesday that Justice Hassell "had very deep concerns about the importance of equal access to justice and fairness by every citizen, especially the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised."

Bonnie said Justice Hassell was "horrified" by stories of mentally ill people being handcuffed and spirited away in a squad car when family members had no recourse but to call the authorities.

"He thought it was necessary to address the problem as a signature feature of his term as chief justice," Bonnie said, noting that Justice Hassell established the commission in the face of resistance from some politicians who criticized it as "activist" judicial overreach.

Leroy Rountree Hassell was born Aug. 17, 1955, in Norfolk, where his father was an assistant school principal and his mother was a school social worker.

He was a 1977 honors graduate of the University of Virginia, where he was involved in student protests over President Frank L. Hereford Jr.'s membership in a racially segregated country club. Hereford quit after a faculty group censured him, a department chairman threatened to resign from the school, and others expressed worry about the school's ability to recruit black students.

Justice Hassell received a law degree in 1980 from Harvard, where he worked on the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Later, at McGuire, Woods, he specialized in commercial and professional liability litigation. He also was co-counsel to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

He was married to the former Linda Greene.

A complete list of survivors could not be determined.

Speaking of his own teenage years, Justice Hassell once described himself as a skinny and ambitious high school debater who was a stranger to doubt when it came to his chances of entering Harvard Law School.

"It's not confidence, it's faith," he told a Norfolk reporter. "I knew that's where God would take me. God has a plan for you, and God will give you what He has promised you. You believe you will do it because it is God's will and Jesus's will for your life. A fool can have false confidence."

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