RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Virginia Supreme Court Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr., the state's first black chief justice, died Wednesday. He was 55.
The court disclosed his death in a Richmond hospital in a brief statement. The cause of death was not immediately released.
George Martin, a friend designated as a family spokesman, declined to divulge the nature of Hassell's illness. He said a funeral will be held at noon Saturday at Faith Landmarks Ministries in Richmond, but burial arrangements were not yet complete.
Gov. Bob McDonnell ordered flags flown at half-staff on all government buildings and grounds in Virginia. Hassell will lie in state in the state Capitol Rotunda from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday, Martin said.
Hassell was appointed to the Supreme Court by then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, a Democrat, in 1989. In 2003 he became the court's first black chief justice and the 24th overall. He held the post until the end of last month.
Hassell did not participate in a week of Supreme Court hearings in January because he was recovering from a hospital stay. The end of his term as chief was unrelated to illness, and he had three years left as a member of the court.
"Without question, the chief was a man of consequence," Baliles said in a written statement. "When he spoke, people listened. When he administered the affairs of justice, he did so with firmness and, yet, compassion."
McDonnell described Hassell as a friend who "had keen insights into the human spirit. Virginia has lost a brilliant legal mind, accomplished jurist and devoted public servant."
When he was sworn in as chief justice, Hassell acknowledged the "historic overtones" of the ceremony but added: "I do not wish to serve, however, because I happen to be black. Rather, I desire to serve because I am Virginian by birth who has a strong affection and love for the commonwealth and its people."
Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, who became the nation's first elected black governor when he succeeded Baliles in 1990, said that Hassell never made much of breaking the racial barrier.
"Leroy did a heck of a job as chief justice and was more renowned for his organizational skills with regard to administration than being the first African-American chief justice," Wilder said in a telephone interview. "He never relished in that at all."
Hassell also was the first person elected chief justice by his colleagues. Before that, the chief justice position automatically went to the longest-serving justice.
"To the extent his colleagues voted him into that position, and he wasn't the most senior person, that shows the respect they had for him and the confidence he would be able to handle the job," Wilder said.
Hassell's last public appearance was a Jan. 21 Virginia Bar Association dinner in Williamsburg, where he received the organization's Distinguished Service Award.
"It was apparent to all who were present there that he had to muster a significant amount of heroic strength and courage just to appear that night," state Del. William Janis, R-Henrico, said in an emotional speech on the House of Delegates floor Wednesday.
Janis said Hassell "had a charisma" as he spoke to the lawyers that night, never mentioning the illness that he had kept private even from his colleagues.
"I feel it's safe to say there was not a single heart who heard Leroy Hassell speak on Jan. 21 -- no matter how hardened they had been made by their profession -- there was not a single heart that was left unmoved by his remarks," Janis said. "I'm not ashamed to say I wept with pride for such a great man."
A Norfolk native, Hassell graduated from the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School, then returned to Richmond where he became a partner in the politically muscular McGuire Woods law firm.
When he joined the Supreme Court at age 34, he became only the second black justice on the court after John Charles Thomas.
As chief justice, Hassell appointed a 30-member commission to examine the mental health system. Among the commission's recommendations was relaxing the standard for involuntary commitment -- a reform enacted by the General Assembly shortly after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, recalled a conversation with Hassell that led to creation of the commission.
"He said, `You know, we have people with mental illness coming to court in shackles, and I can't tolerate that,"' said Howell, who served on the commission. She said Hassell endured some criticism for the initiative, but "he made a tremendous difference."
"We reformed our mental health law, and when the tragedy at Virginia Tech happened we were well on our way to knowing what to do," she said.
In 2000, as the court's lone black member, Hassell wrote powerful dissenting opinions in two close racial discrimination cases.
He wrote for the court's minority in a 4-3 ruling that a 1952 state law banning Ku Klux Klan-type cross burnings violated the right to free expression.
"(T)he majority opinion invalidates a statute that for almost 50 years has protected our citizens from being placed in fear of bodily harm by the burning of a cross," Hassell wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Hassell in a 6-3 ruling three years later upholding the law.
In another 4-3 ruling, Hassell wrote in dissent that the court should have upheld a verdict against an insurance company in a racial discrimination lawsuit. He agreed that the jury's $100,000 judgment was excessive but argued the matter should have been sent back to trial court to determine appropriate damages.
Hassell wrote that "racial discrimination is odious and ... no citizen, irrespective of his or her race, should be required to suffer the humiliation and indignities associated with such discrimination."
By LARRY O'DELL