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Tampa Bay lawmakers scuttle naming courthouse for Florida’s first Black justice

Those reached cited Joseph Hatchett’s ruling in a school prayer case that closely followed a Supreme Court opinion.
An undated photo of former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett, who died Friday, April 30, 2021. He was 88.
An undated photo of former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett, who died Friday, April 30, 2021. He was 88. [ Akerman Senterfitt ]
Published Apr. 29

Three Republican congressmen who represent the Tampa Bay area were among those who voted down a move to name the Tallahassee federal courthouse after the state’s first Black Supreme Court justice, the late Joseph Hatchett.

In all, 10 Florida Republicans voted against the measure, even though all were co-sponsors of the bill, including Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key, Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and Scott Franklin of Lakeland.

The bill had previously passed unanimously in the Senate, sponsored there by Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

Scott had said he was “proud to honor the life and legacy” of Hatchett, and Rubio said Hatchett “lived an inspiring life of service” and, “his story is worthy of commemoration.”

The House Republicans abruptly changed their position when a Georgia congressman, Rep. Andrew Clyde, circulated a news clipping about Hatchett on the House floor during the March 30 voting.

The 1999 story concerned a federal appeals court decision Hatchett wrote against prayer at a public high school graduation in Duval County. His decision cited and followed the precedent of a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a similar case, Lee v. Weisman.

“It was a shock,” said U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, sponsor of the House measure, said of the vote.

“The voting went on for about 15 minutes while the members were coming and going, and they were calling members who had gone to their offices to come back and change their votes. It was chaotic.”

Hatchett, who died a year ago, was born in 1932, the son of a maid and a fruit picker, and grew up in Clearwater.

He served in the Army and got his law degree from Howard University at a time when the state’s only law school, the University of Florida, didn’t admit Black students. He couldn’t stay in the hotel where the bar exam was administered or eat lunch with the other test takers.

He went into private practice, then was appointed an assistant U.S. Attorney in 1966 and a U.S. magistrate in 1971, making him the first Black federal judicial officer in the South.

Gov. Reubin Askew appointed him to the state Supreme Court in 1975, hoping to clean up a court mired in scandal with three justices facing impeachment. He won re-election to his seat in 1976, the first Black candidate to win a statewide election since Reconstruction.

In 1979 President Jimmy Carter appointed him a federal judge, the first Black federal judge in the deep south. He served 20 years, becoming chief judge of the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, then retired from the bench and became head of appellate practice at a prominent Florida law firm.

“He was a hero, someone that everybody admired regardless of ethnicity,” Lawson said.

Lawson noted that Clyde, the Georgia congressman, voted against the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act that made lynching a federal hate crime. Clyde previously made headlines for comparing the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol to “a normal tourist visit.”

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The Hatchett bill, requiring a two-thirds majority, failed on a near-party line vote, 238 yes to 187 no.

Of the 206 Republicans voting, 186 voted no along with one Democrat.

Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, voted yes along with five other Florida Republicans and all 11 Democrats.

The New York Times reported that Buchanan, who’s likely to become powerful Ways and Means chairman if Republicans retake the House, said, “I don’t know” when asked why he voted no.

A spokesman later clarified it was “because of the judge’s position against prayer at graduation ceremonies,” the Times reported.

Buchanan said through a spokesman that he didn’t recall speaking to a New York Times reporter and said he opposed the bill “because of the judge’s position against prayer at graduation ceremonies.”

A Bilirakis spokesperson said he signed on to the bill as “a professional courtesy” but voted no “after learning of a controversial ruling by Judge Hatchett against student-led school prayer.”

Questioned via messages and emailed lists of questions delivered to their press spokespersons starting Tuesday, Franklin provided no response and none of the three answered whether they knew the decision followed a Supreme Court precedent.

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