Mourners gather in memory of Hassell, first black to lead Virginia Supreme Court

Hundreds of mourners stood in line Friday at the state Capitol in Richmond to walk by the flag-draped casket of Leroy R. Hassell Sr., the first black chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, who died Wednesday at age 55.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 11, 2011; 10:38 PM

Hundreds of mourners walked slowly and quietly past the flag-draped casket of Leroy R. Hassell Sr., the first black chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, whose body lay in state Friday in the ornate rotunda in the historic Capitol. Hassell is the first African American granted the honor in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Hassell, a Harvard-educated lawyer considered a mentor to many in Virginia's legal and political community, died Wednesday at age 55 after a long illness. He stepped down as chief justice Jan. 31 and had three years remaining in his 12-year term on the bench.

Hassell's casket was taken to the Capitol at 9 a.m. Friday, escorted by his widow, Linda, and daughters Joanna and Stephanie. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) visited privately with the family, as did Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser and Justice William C. Mims.

An hour later, members of the public were allowed to sign a guest book and pay their respects to Hassell in the yellow-and-white rotunda, which is adorned by marble busts of Virginia-born presidents. A life-size statue of George Washington sits in the middle of the room. The dark, wooden casket covered by Virginia's dark blue flag had an honor guard of Virginia State Police and Capitol Police officers in dress blue uniforms and white gloves.

McDonnell, a close friend of Hassell's for 18 years who regularly lunched with him, returned in the afternoon with his wife, Maureen. They held hands and talked quietly in front of the casket before an emotional McDonnell patted it as a farewell.

"I think he has a tremendous legacy,'' McDonnell said. "I think he left a lasting mark on the courts of Virginia. I will miss him a great deal; he was a good friend. He was a great advocate for justice, and he will be very hard to replace."

Hassell, a lawyer and civic leader, advanced rapidly to a partnership at McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe, one of the nation's largest law firms, and chaired the Richmond School Board.

Then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D) appointed him to the Virginia Supreme Court in 1989. Hassell helped create a commission that worked to modernize the state's mental health-care system, which took on added significance after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, and was known as a tireless advocate for judges' pay, benefits and working conditions.

Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond), a hero of Virginia's civil rights movement, said he was struck by the symbolism of the tribute to Hassell in a space that long was used to remember Confederates, including Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson in 1863 and Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy during the Civil War, in 1893.

"It's a tribute to a man who did so much to help us enter the modern age," Marsh said. "It shows the regard with which people held his service."

State legislators, who were in session Friday, paid their respects after the House of Delegates and Senate adjourned for the weekend, as lobbyists and citizens groups crowded nearby, hoping to catch a lawmaker.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) said it was fitting that Hassell was being honored during the General Assembly's annual session, as the people's business continued around his memorial.

"I think he really enabled us to take an important step to building our more perfect union," Bolling said.

Tributes to the jurist have poured in since his death. He was memorialized on the floors of the Virginia House and Senate, and in Washington, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) entered a statement into the congressional record in his honor.

"He cared deeply about the people of the Commonwealth and was passionate about helping others,'' Cantor wrote, also calling him "a life-long public servant and powerful voice for all Virginians."

Many dignitaries, including McDonnell and Bolling, are expected to attend Hassell's funeral at noon Saturday at Faith Landmarks Ministries in Richmond.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company