Florida’s First Black Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Hatchett, Dies at 88

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The Florida Supreme Court announced on Saturday that former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph Hatchett died in Tallahassee on Friday, April 30, 2021 at age 88.

Hatchett became the first African American to serve on Florida’s highest court when he was appointed by Governor Reubin Askew in 1975. Hatchett was Florida’s 65th Justice since statehood was granted in 1845.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter named him to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, becoming the first African American to serve in a federal circuit that covered the Deep South at the time.

“His life represents an amazing commitment to fight for justice and equality at a time when the battle for both was stacked against him,” Rosemary Barkett, a former Florida Supreme Court justice and appellate judge, said as part of a January event in which the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society honored Hatchett with a lifetime achievement award.

Hatchett grew up in Clearwater, Florida and attended Pinellas High School. After graduation from Florida A&M University in 1954, Hatchett was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. He entered Howard University School of Law in 1956 and earned his LL.B. degree in 1959.

He took the Florida Bar Exam in 1959 at a time when black examinees could not stay in the hotel where the test was administered because of Jim Crow regulations still in effect. After admission to the Florida Bar in November 1959, Hatchett entered private practice in Daytona Beach, practicing criminal, civil, administrative, and civil rights law in state and federal courts.

In 1966, Hatchett was appointed assistant United States attorney for the Middle District of Florida, and, in 1967, he was designated first assistant United States attorney. In 1971, he was appointed United States magistrate for the Middle District of Florida.

In 1976, in defending his seat on the Florida Supreme Court, Hatchett became the first African American to win a Florida statewide contested election in the Twentieth Century.  It was the last contested election for the Florida Supreme Court before constitutional reforms moved state appeals judges to an uncontested merit election system.

Hatchett retired in 1999 and returned to private practice in Tallahassee with the Akerman firm.

In a video interview that was part of the January event, Hatchett said “honesty and the truth are the hallmarks of good lawyers and good judges.” Hatchett said he was proud of steps that were taken by the Florida Supreme Court during his tenure to allow cameras in courtrooms and to improve disciplining of lawyers.

“Those two things come to mind where Florida has led the nation when it came to the legal profession, one, cameras in courtrooms and disciplinary proceedings,” Hatchett said.

Services are pending. Further details will be posted on the Florida Supreme Court website when they become available: www.floridasupremecourt.org

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Steve Stewart is the Managing Editor and a contributor at The Florida Capital Star. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Florida Supreme Court” by Bruin79 CC 3.0 and photo “Joseph Hatchett” by Florida Supreme Court.

 

 

 

 

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