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Alcee Hastings, pioneering civil rights activist, judge and politician, dies at 84

The longtime South Florida figure spent decades in public life, surviving legal and political scandals.
Alcee Hastings, crusading civil rights lawyer, the first Black federal judge in Florida and dean of Florida’s U.S. congressional delegation died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84.
Alcee Hastings, crusading civil rights lawyer, the first Black federal judge in Florida and dean of Florida’s U.S. congressional delegation died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84. [ Miami Herald ]
Published Apr. 6
Updated Apr. 6

Alcee Hastings, crusading civil rights lawyer, the first Black federal judge in Florida and dean of Florida’s U.S. congressional delegation during a tumultuous career that took him from the segregated lunch counters of the Deep South to Capitol Hill, has died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84.

Hastings, fierce, eloquent, witty and beloved by his constituents, was re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives 15 times since first winning office in 1992. It was a political winning streak that came in the wake of his impeachment and ouster from the federal bench by the U.S. Senate in a bribery case that Hasting had earlier beaten in criminal court.

Hastings first represented northern Miami-Dade and Broward counties in District 23, and, since congressional boundaries were remade in 2012, he has represented Palm Beach County-centered District 20. Despite a few ethics controversies along the way, at his death he ranked as Florida’s longest-serving member of Congress and remained a consistent champion of Democratic Party causes.

“I have been convinced that this is a battle worth fighting, and my life is defined by fighting battles worth fighting,” Hastings said when he was diagnosed with cancer in January 2019. His longtime colleague and friend, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, confirmed his death on Tuesday morning.

As a congressman, Hastings was a fierce critic of President Donald Trump and twice voted to impeach him. But despite his seniority and sharp litigation skills, he was never in the spotlight asking questions. That was because of his own past, he said.

“There’s no way in the world that I would serve on an impeachment panel,” he said. “All the talk would be of how I got impeached.”

Worked through illness

Hasting strove to continue working through his illness. But in early January, he missed the Jan. 3 roll call vote to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House and votes on Republican challenges to the election of President Joe Biden. In a statement, he said that on the advice of doctors he would remain in Florida but tweeted out his support of Biden before Pro-Trump rioters swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Since then, on Jan. 8, Hastings introduced the “Build America Act of 2021” which would add $10 billion annually to federal infrastructure grant programs. The bill would expand funding for roads, bridges and public transit “so that we can start making the investments in infrastructure our country so desperately needs,” Hastings said.

Born in Altamonte Springs, Hastings was the only son of a housemaid and butler.

As an activist, he was jailed in a dozen civil rights sit-ins and demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet he was thrown out of Howard University law school for lacking “seriousness of purpose” before getting his degree at Florida A&M University.

As a young lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, he and partner W. George Allen, often in alliance with the NAACP, filed lawsuits against restaurants, hotels and government entities such as the Broward County School District to force desegregation.

In 1966, after civil unrest erupted in Pompano Beach, Hastings was widely quoted for his explanation about why race riots ripped through the country.

“Because no matter what they tell you, all is not right in colored town,” he said 55 years ago. “When you have people living in squalor and seething desperation, with poor housing, miserable, menial jobs and inferior schools, you have the exact same situation they have in Watts.”

In 1970, Hastings became the first Black Floridian to run for the U.S. Senate. He knew he was a long-shot.

“This will help Blacks overcome their inferiority complex,” he said. “I think I will prove, to Blacks and to whites alike, that a Negro candidate can be just as seriously concerned with taxation, with saving our environment, with providing rapid transportation and with helpful programs for our senior citizens as any white candidate is.”

He lost — in fact, he lost the first eight races he ran in — but gave Blacks a political foundation to build on. He also raised his profile among state and national political leaders in the Democratic Party.

“We did establish credibility in this race,” he said. “We proved that a Black man can run for statewide office. A Black man with money can probably win.”

In 1977, Gov. Reubin Askew appointed Hastings as a Broward County Circuit Court judge — the start of a meteoric judicial career. Two years later, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Hastings to the U.S. District Court, making him the first Black federal judge in Florida. For his swearing-in ceremony, he chose Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High — a school he helped desegregate.

As a judge, the wise-cracking Hastings flexed his muscle to protect the poor and disenfranchised. He defied Ronald Reagan’s policies, calling the president “dumb” and “a dodo,” and blocked an Immigration and Naturalization Service order to deport Haitians.

Legal battles

But soon after his trail-blazing appointment, he was in trouble with the law himself.

In 1981, Hastings was charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for soliciting a $150,000 bribe in return for reducing the sentences of the mafia-connected Romano brothers who had been convicted in Hastings’ court of embezzling $1.2 million from a Teamsters pension fund.

William Borders, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who was indicted alongside Hastings, was convicted in 1982 in an FBI sting operation. Hastings was acquitted in criminal court in 1983. Patricia Williams, who later became his chief of staff and wife, worked as his co-counsel throughout the trial.

Despite the criminal acquittal, the House of Representatives in 1988 voted 413 to 3 to approve 17 articles of impeachment against Hastings — including perjury, evidence tampering and conspiring to accept bribes — the highest number of articles brought against any person to that point.

The U.S. Senate convicted him of eight charges and ordered Hastings’ removal. The Department of Justice said that Hastings was the first sitting federal judge to be charged with a crime and the first to be impeached since 1936.

Hastings was thrown off the bench in 1989, eight years after he was indicted.

“I have said it for public consumption before,” Hastings said. “In the time they have spent investigating me, they could have investigated Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and Hitler. I find it incomprehensible that this matter has taken so long.”

Then, standing on the Capitol steps, the undaunted Hastings announced he would run for governor of Florida. He ran for secretary of state instead, and lost.

But it didn’t take long for the charismatic Hastings to recover and reinvent himself.

In 1992, he won a seat in Washington, D.C., to represent the newly created 23rd District. He joined the U.S. House that had impeached him and seemingly doomed his career three years earlier. He has been there ever since.

Even as he gained political influence, ethics questions swirled around Hasting and his inner circle.

Williams, his lawyer during his trial, and later to become his girlfriend and wife, was in trouble with the Florida Bar. Hastings represented her as she fought charges of collecting excessive fees and misusing money from a client’s trust fund. She was disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court. Hastings immediately gave her a new job, appointing her to his congressional staff in 1993.

Their relationship came under scrutiny in November 2019, when the House Ethics Committee stated it was investigating Hastings again. House rules bar members from having romantic relationships with aides or staffers, although they are allowed to employ a spouse. Once the committee found out Hastings and Williams had married nine months earlier, the inquiry ended.

“During its review, the Committee became aware that Representative Hastings has been married to the individual employed in his congressional office since January 2019,” the committee stated. “Accordingly, Representative Hastings is not in violation of House Rule XXIII, clause 18(a), as its terms do not apply to relationships between two people who are married to each other, nor is he in violation of the House Gift Rule, which permits Members to accept gifts from relatives.”

The committee said it also reviewed Hastings’ conduct and compliance with nepotism rules prior to his marriage to Williams and decided to impose no sanctions. Williams’ daughter and the wife of his ex-legislative counsel — both husband and wife were convicted of money laundering — also worked in Hastings’ office.

Hastings defended his employment of Williams, who he said was particularly valuable as deputy district director given her expertise on immigration law.

“She’s worked with me from Day One,” Hastings told the media. “It would be one thing if she didn’t work. But she’s working today, and she has continued to work. There is no prohibition against it whatsoever. However it looks, it’s been looking like that for 25 years.”

Hastings had faced controversy surrounding interaction with another staff member, but was never found to have violated House ethics rules.

The Treasury Department paid $220,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit against Hastings in 2017, according to the publication Roll Call. Not only did Hastings deny any improper behavior, he said he wasn’t even aware of the settlement payment.

“I am outraged that any taxpayer dollars were needlessly paid to Ms. Packer,” Hastings said of the complaint by 53-year-old Winsome Packer, who accused him of making crude sexual comments, touching her inappropriately and pursuing her for sex. Packer was a staffer for the Helsinki Commission, of which Hastings was House chair. A federal judge and the House Ethics Committee found no evidence to support her claims, but she was paid the settlement, anyway.

None of the scandals dented Hastings’ popularity with voters. He’s won reelection every two years since 1992 by huge margins; five times he ran unopposed.

Despite his seniority, Hastings chairs no congressional committees, but he is a powerful member of the House Rules Committee.

Hastings also was influential in setting the rules for the first Trump impeachment inquiry.

“This man has degraded and debased the presidency,” Hastings said.

Details on services were not immediately available.