Tributes to Virginia Supreme Court Justice Leroy Hassell poured in yesterday after Hassell, the state’s first black chief justice, died at the age of 55. There were solemn remembrances in the General Assembly, including a personal one from Del. Lacey Putney, I-Bedford.
This is Putney’s 50th year in the House of Delegates, making him the longest-serving state legislator in the nation. He was elected in 1961, a time when few could have imagined that a black lawyer could become chief justice of the state’s highest court.
Putney and Hassell became friends, and the chief justice performed Putney’s marriage to his wife Carmela in the House chamber in 2007.
This is what Putney had to say about Hassell on the House floor yesterday:
“When I first saw this young justice walk down the aisle on the evening of the State of the Commonwealth, I couldn’t imagine a person so young looking having the experience and what it takes to be a member of the Supreme Court. But I learned pretty quickly just how capable he was.
“Chief Justice Hassell, in my opinion, has done as much or more than any of his predecessors to upgrade the professionalism and the process of our judiciary in Virginia. He believed that not only we lawyers at the bar, but those on the bench, should work and not be on the golf courses early in the afternoon if they were going to be good judges. He ran into some snags and problems with a lot of them, circuit court and others, because there was a feeling, Mr. Speaker, that he may be a little overanxious in the management of the judiciary. But I’m convinced that he did it out of his deep-seated determination to make Virginia’s judicial branch of government second to none in this country.
“I don’t know how it happened, but somehow we got to be good friends. When I attended the investiture of Chief Justice Hassell, I came away feeling as proud as I had ever been in my life to be a Virginian and a member of this legislature. The investiture of the first African-American chief justice, Mr. Speaker, in my opinion was a landmark move on the part of the commonwealth.
“He did so many things I’m not going to reiterate because the gentleman from Henrico has covered them. But I do want to say, Mr. Speaker, among the greatest acts that the man ever performed was right here in this chamber in June of 2007. You were here, Mr. Speaker, when Carmela and I had the unusual privilege of having the chief justice to perform our marriage in the House chamber. His wife Linda is a lovely lady. Chief Justice Hassell is going to be long remembered and missed by all of us who were privileged to be numbered among his legion of friends. Thank you.”
Hasssell’s body wil lie in state in the rotunda of the state Capitol from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday.