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Posted at 5:49 PM ET, 02/11/2011

Former chief justice Leroy Hassell lies in state in Virginia Capitol

By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman

Hundreds of mourners walked slowly and quietly Friday 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 in the ornate rotunda in the historic Capitol.

The wooden casket covered by Virginia's dark blue flag was guarded by State Police and Capitol Police officers in dress blue uniforms and white gloves.

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

Hassell's casket was brought to the Capitol at 9 a.m. Friday, accompanied by Hassell's 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 adorned by marble busts of Virginia-born presidents. A life-sized statue of George Washington sits in the middle of the room.

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

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D) appointed him to the state Supreme Court in 1989. Hassell helped create a commission worked to modernize the state's mental health care system. He was also known as a tireless advocate for judges's pay, benefits and working conditions.

Hassell is the first African American to lie in state in the Capitol in the former capital of the Confederacy. Other notable men to lie in state there include former president John Tyler in 1862; Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson 1863; and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Sen. Henry L. Marsh (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 was long used to remember Confederates.

"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 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."

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, calling him "a life-long public servant and powerful voice for all Virginians."

"He cared deeply about the people of the Commonwealth and was passionate about helping others,'' Cantor wrote.

Many dignitaries are expected to attend Hassell's funeral Saturday in Richmond, including Mc­Don­nell and Bolling.

By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman  | February 11, 2011; 5:49 PM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar, Bill Bolling, General Assembly 2011, House of Delegates, Robert F. McDonnell, State Senate  
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