Hassell, Leroy Rountree Sr. 1955–
Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr. 1955–
On February 1, 2002, Leroy R. Hassell, Sr. became the first African American to be named chief justice on Virginia’s Supreme Court. “I do not wish to serve, however, because I happen to be black,” Alan Cooper of the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted Hassell as saying. “Rather, I desire to serve because I am a Virginian by birth who has a strong affection and love for the commonwealth and its people.” His achievement also marked the first time a chief justice was chosen by the court’s jurists as opposed to choice by seniority. “I think it sends a pretty powerful message,” Hassell told Tavis Smiley on the Tavis Smiley Show, “that if you work hard, if you’re able to get along with your peers, if people have confidence in you and your ability, then you can be elected as the chief judge in this commonwealth.”
Hassell was born on August 17, 1955, in Norfolk, Virginia, to Ruth and Joseph Hassell. His father worked as an assistant high school principal and his mother worked as an elementary school teacher and then a social worker. After being chosen at Norview High School as the student most likely to succeed, Leroy Hassell attended the University of Virginia, where he won the Scholar of the Year award. Following graduation in 1977, he attended Harvard Law School for three years, serving as a recruiter for the admissions office and working on the Civil Liberties Law Review. In 1980 Hassell returned to Virginia and joined McGuire, Woods, Battle & Booth of Richmond, the second oldest law firm in the state and one of the oldest in the United States.
Hassell’s legal work focused on commercial and professional liability legislation, and he was able to become a partner at McGuire, Woods, Battle & Booth after seven—as opposed to the usual eight—years. Hassell also filled his schedule with a number of civic responsibilities. He worked as council to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and was chosen as the chairman of the Richmond School Board. Hassell also served as director for the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, Richmond Renaissance, and the Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross.
In 1989 Governor Gerald Baliles nominated Hassell to the Virginia Supreme Court. “He has a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and an extraordinary amount of energy,” Baliles told Christina Nuckols in the
Born on August 17, 1955, in Norfolk, VA; son of Joseph R. Hassell Sr. and Ruth Hassell; married Linda Greene. Education: University of Virginia, BA, 1977; Harvard Law School, JD, 1980.
Career: McGuire, Woods, Battle & Booth, lawyer, 1980–89; Supreme Court of Virginia, justice, 1989–2001, chief justice, 2002–.
Awards: Liberty Bell Award, American Bar Association, 1990; Black Achievers Award, YMCA, 1985, 1986; Outstanding Young Citizen Award, Richmond Jaycees, 1987; Outstanding Young Virginian Award, Virginia Jaycees, 1987.
Addresses: Office —Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Virginia, 100 N. 9th St, Richmond, VA 23219.
Virginian-Pilot. Hassell, at 34, was also one of the youngest jurists to be chosen for Virginia’s highest court. “I never thought age should be a deterrent at either end of the spectrum,” Baliles told Michael Sluss and Laurence Hammock in the Roanoke Times. “He was someone with whom I had worked, and someone who had been recommended, and he had a wide range of legal experience and a commitment to the law.”
In 2001 Hassell cast a stinging dissent when the Virginia court ruled that the state’s historical ban on cross burning violated the right to expression guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The decision reversed a 50-year-old statute that had outlawed Klu Klux Klan-style cross burnings. Hassell wrote in his dissent: “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. However, 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.” Hassell was also one of two justices who dissented when the court upheld the death penalty conviction of Daryl Renard Atkins, whose 59 IQ qualified him as mentally retarded. The United States Supreme Court would later overturn that decision.
Hassell has a well-earned reputation as a reasonable and fair jurist. “Many court analysts consider Hassell a moderate and a consensus-builder whose perspective has been especially valuable in cases involving various forms of discrimination,” wrote Sluss and Hammock. Other analysts have noted Hassell’s evenhandedness in judicial matters. “My impression has remained consistent over the years,” University of Virginia law professor Robert O’Neil told the Associated Press, “that Justice Hassell is a thoroughly committed and thoughtful citizen and lawyer and he has been a conscientious justice on the court.”
In anticipation of Chief Justice Harry Carrico’s retirement in January of 2002, the jurists voted in private to choose his replacement. In the past, the chief justice had been chosen by seniority, but in 2001 the General Assembly of Virginia voted to transfer the decision to the jurists themselves. Although Hassell ranked second in seniority, his colleagues elected him to fill the position. “It’s a very meaningful moment in the history of Virginia,” noted retired Justice John Charles Thomas in the Virginian-Pilot. “This is a person of color who is a leader in a branch of government. It shows that government is open to all people.” As chief justice, Hassell has the authority to choose who wrote majority decisions, and he assigned circuit court cases and oversaw the budget for the Virginia court system.
Hassell has expressed his belief that his position will allow him to “improve the quality of justice in Virginia,” he told Smiley. “I care very deeply about people and I care how people are treated. I want people to be treated fairly with dignity and respect, and that is very, very important to me.” Hassell has also been vocal in encouraging lawyers to volunteer pro bono services for clients lacking financial means. “If you don’t have a good attorney,” he told Smiley, “the likelihood that you will receive justice is diminished.”
In public addresses Virginia’s chief justice has emphasized the importance of self-sacrifice and public service. In 2003, at the Roanoke Bar Association’s Law Day luncheon, Hassell told his audience: “We must never be too busy to help,” quoted the Roanoke Times. He likewise stressed the importance of self-sacrifice to a number of Virginia middle and high school students in 2003. “It was extremely important to me that the Supreme Court have a black person as a member,” quoted the Virginian-Pilot. “If I did not offer myself, I could not complain. I feel we should make things happen. You channel your energy and change what you do not like.”
Associated Press, August 28, 2002.
Richmond Times, February 12, 2003, p. A-l.
Roanoke Times,, August 28, 2002, p. Al; May 2, 2003, p. B4.
Virginian-Pilot, May 20, 2003, p. B3.
“Leroy Rountree Hassell, Sr.,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (June 13, 2003).
“Norfolk Native Is Va.’s First Black Chief Justice,” Pilot Online, www.pilotonline.com/ (June 13, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview on the Tavis Smiley Show, aired on National Public Radio, March 13, 2003.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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