Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassll, Jr., died this morning after a long battle with cancer. Chief Justice Hassell was the second African-American Justice on the Virginia Supreme Court, and the first African-American Chief Justice.
He was a champion of indigent defense, and under his leadership the Virginia Supreme Court began a series of programs to improve the quality of indigent defense and of criminal practice in solo and small law firms.
Chief Justice Hassell had been sick for some time, though the details were never public. He had announced last fall that he was not going to serve another term as Chief Justice, and Cynthia Kinser was chosen by the Court to serve as Chief Justice beginning on February 1.
To those of us who are concerned about the quality of criminal representation in the Commonwealth, and particularly to those of us who practice in small firms and who represent most of the criminal defendants in the Commonwealth, Chief Justice Hassell was a strong advocate for a group that often had no advocate in high places.
Chief Justice Hassell was determined to use his power at the Virginia Supreme Court as the chief administrative officer in the court system to improve the legal system. For example, when the General Assembly did not act for a couple of years in a row to study improvements to the ways in which the judicial system handles the mentally ill, he formed his own study commission under his authority as Chief Justice. This outraged the General Assembly, but it began a conversation that needed to be started. In an effort to improve the quality of judges, he began a process of evaluating judges that involved local attorneys giving reviews of the judges. These reviews were then used within the court system for feedback to the judges, so that (hopefully) they might accept criticism and improve. The General Assembly got into another argument with the Supreme Court over these reviews, because the Judiciary Committees wanted access to the reviews when it came time to reappoint judges. Chief Justice Hassell refused to give the reviews to the Committees, leading to more turf battles, attempts to cut the Court’s budget, etc.
In all of these fights, Chief Justice Hassell used his power as Chief Justice to improve the delivery of legal services, at a time when the political process seemed paralyzed and unable to act.
He will be missed, and one can only hope that Chief Justice Kinser will continue his fights.