The Richmond Times-Dispatch is reporting that Virginia's first black chief justice, Leroy Hassell, has died. Hassell was nominated to the state's high court at age 34 and elected chief justice in 2002, becoming the state’s first black chief justice on Feb. 1, 2003. He was also the first chief justice elected by other members of the court. He recently completed that term and was succeeded by Justice Cynthia Kinser.
Hassell graduated in 1977 from the University of Virginia, where he won a Scholar of the Year award. Three years later, he graduated from Harvard University Law School. He served there as a recruiter in the admissions office and worked on the Civil Liberties Law Review.
After law school, Hassell joined the law firm of McGuireWoods, where he specialized in commercial and professional liability litigation and was co-counsel to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. He also served as chairman of the Richmond School Board.
Among his accomplishments, Hassell established a Commission on Mental Health Law Reform in 2006. The panel's work resulted in, among other sweeping changes, recommendations to ease the standard for involuntary commitment from "imminent danger" to "substantial likelihood" that a patient would harm himself or another person. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement: "Today we mourn the passing of Justice Leroy Hassell Sr., who has left us in the prime of his years. The Norfolk native will be nobly remembered by Virginians for many things, including his intellect, his warmth, and his concern for the downtrodden.
"Justice Hassell served as the commonwealth's first black chief justice, which he accepted with both a measure of discomfort and resolve," Cuccinelli continued.
Cuccinelli quoted Hassell, who told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2003 that he did not wish to serve because of his race, but a "desire to serve because I am a Virginian by birth who has a strong affection and love for the commonwealth and its people."
Hassell was ill during most of the final year of his service as chief justice and did not sit in the final session of the court in January 2011. He was 55. He is survived by his wife, Linda, and three children.
Read more at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.