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No black Supreme Court justices in Florida? 'This will be Rick Scott's legacy'

Clearwater's Joseph Woodrow Hatchett, right, the first black state Supreme Court justice belown the Mason-Dixon line, is mobbed by well wishers and autograph seekers in the rotunda of the Supreme Court after being sworn in before a standing room only crowd of over 300 people on Sept. 2, 1975. (Times files)

His mother was a maid, and his father picked fruit for a living.

As a black child growing up in Clearwater in the 1930s and '40s, he knew downtown benches were off limits and his only hope of finding a seat on a city bus was in the very last row.

He also knew, after his father died while he was in high school, any hope for a better life would depend on a scholarship. "If you let me stay in school,'' he told his mother Lulu, "I'll make you proud of me.''

Twenty-five years later, in September 1975, Joseph Woodrow Hatchett made history as the first black judge below the Mason-Dixon Line to be named to a state Supreme Court. Florida was changing the face of Southern justice, and Hatchett was helping to lead the way.

As of next month, the legacy of Joseph Hatchett has been diminished. At least where the state Supreme Court is concerned.

With Justice Peggy Quince facing mandatory retirement age in January, Florida's highest court will be without a black member for the first time in decades. That was assured this week when the state's Judicial Nominating Commission failed to include a black candidate among the 11 nominees sent to Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis for three upcoming openings on the court.

Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi currently have black Supreme Court justices. Florida won't. North Carolina and South Carolina do. Florida won't.

"You think we're moving forward, but we're not,'' said Tampa attorney and former state Rep. Sean Shaw, whose father, Leander, followed Hatchett as the second black Supreme Court justice in Florida. "The record of appellate court appointments the past eight years, and now the Supreme Court, is horrendous. It's terrible. This will be Rick Scott's legacy, and he should be ashamed of himself.''

The declining lack of diversity on the state's highest court is not coincidental, and cannot be viewed in a vacuum. It may not be fair to call it racist, but it is a deliberate attempt to remake the state's judiciary according to Gov. Scott's narrowly conservative view of the world.

As part of an amicus brief filed in November concerning Scott's failed attempt to prematurely replace the outgoing justices, a predominantly black legal advocacy group in Broward County detailed the governor's judicial appointments since taking office in 2011. With 32 openings in state appellate courts, Scott failed to appoint a single black judge. His only previous Supreme Court pick was also white.

"Given this history over the course of almost eight years, there appeared to be a clear signal that Governor Rick Scott … would not select any African American members of the Florida Bar,'' the brief from the T.J. Reddick Bar Association asserted.

The governor's office explained to the News Service of Florida that Scott is legally obligated to choose judges from a list of candidates forwarded by the Judicial Nominating Commission. But that explanation conveniently ignores the reality that Scott also chooses who is on the commission, and that he has vetoed the Florida Bar an unprecedented number of times for commission seats.

"I understand elections have consequences, and I'm fine with the idea the governor is looking for judges with a conservative outlook,'' Shaw said. "If it was 5 or 10 or 12 judges who all looked alike, you might accept it. But 30? Thirty! Are there no black Republicans in Florida? No black conservatives? There is now a stunning lack of diversity at the appellate court level, and the Supreme Court, and that doesn't seem to bother Gov. Scott. He's not even worried about naming one or two just to make himself look good.''

While it was Scott who set the Supreme Court nominations in motion last month, it will be up to DeSantis to pick three justices from the list of 11 nominees forwarded by the commission.

The Florida chapter of the NAACP on Friday called for the commission to revisit its nominating process. That does not appear likely with the commission already having interviewed 59 candidates, including six black applicants.

"Diversity is supposed to bring about an understanding of what a culture is like through shared experiences,'' said Adora Obi Nweze, of the state's NAACP chapter. "We now have more than 3 million (black) people in this state who will go unrepresented on the Supreme Court. That's ridiculous in this era.''

One of the 59 applicants interviewed by the commission for a Supreme Court opening was Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews, the black son of a Bahamian immigrant.

Like some echo from the not-too-distant past, his application form detailed his upbringing in Homestead.

His mother was a maid, and his father was a custodian and seasonal worker.

When his father lost a leg and the use of an arm in an accident, the family fell into severe poverty and was forced to rely on public assistance. Yet seven of the eight Andrews children went on to earn college diplomas. Andrews advanced through law school, the state attorney's office and now 21 years on the bench.

"My father often told us, 'In order to reach the top, first you must climb the hill,' " Andrews wrote. "I, at this time, stand before yet another hill that I am prepared to climb.''

Except this time, the hill is out of reach.

Contact John Romano at Follow @romano_tbtimes.