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Republican lawmakers should be ashamed for failing to honor Justice Joseph Hatchett | Editorial
If ‘honorable’ still means something, these Tampa Bay Republicans would have voted to name a courthouse after the trailblazing Black Florida judge.
Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett died on April 30, 2021. He was 88.
Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett died on April 30, 2021. He was 88. [ Florida Supreme Court ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published May 3|Updated May 3

Justice Joseph Woodrow Hatchett, a barrier-breaking man of great distinction, was the first Black judge on the Florida Supreme Court. To honor his memory, Congress was recently set to name the Tallahassee federal courthouse after him. The Senate, including Florida Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, unanimously supported the measure. But it failed in the House at the last minute when Republicans, including Tampa Bay representatives Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key and Scott Franklin of Lakeland, voted against the honor, even though they had co-sponsored the measure. To his credit, Rep. Daniel Webster voted yes. So did five other Florida Republicans and all 11 Democrats.

Why the change of heart? It seems as simple as the cowardice of their convictions, and they should be ashamed. Turns out the late judge had written a federal appeals court ruling against prayer at a public high school graduation in Duval County in the 1990s. This was no maverick decision. He cited and followed the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Worse, this “news” — that the judge followed precedent and upheld the Constitution — emerged as the House was voting, and it came from a decades-old news clipping circulated by Rep. Andrew Clyde, a Georgia Republican who made his own headlines when he voted against the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act and for comparing the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol to “a normal tourist visit.” In the end, the Hatchett bill failed to gain the required two-thirds majority. The near-party line vote was 238 yes to 187 no, including 10 Florida Republicans.

Bilirakis voted no “after learning of a controversial ruling by Judge Hatchett against student-led school prayer,” a spokesperson for the congressman told the Tampa Bay Times’ William March. Perhaps the congressman has an alternative definition of “controversial.” It is not controversial to follow the Constitution and the precedents established by the U.S. Supreme Court. No, it is honorable.

In fact, let’s talk about “honorable,” because Judge Hatchett was the very definition of the word. Hatchett, born in 1932, was the son of a maid and a fruit picker. He grew up in Clearwater in the Jim Crow South. He graduated from historically Black Florida A&M University in 1954, served as an Army officer and entered Howard University School of Law in 1956. Attending law school at the flagship University of Florida was out of the question. UF didn’t admit Black students then.

When he took the bar exam, because he was Black, he couldn’t even stay in the hotel where the test was administered. Yet, he persevered. He became a U.S. magistrate in 1971, making him the first Black federal judicial officer in the South. And then in 1975, Gov. Reubin Askew appointed him to the state Supreme Court at a time that the court was stuck in scandal. He won re-election in 1976, becoming the first Black candidate to win a statewide election since Reconstruction. President Jimmy Carter appointed him a federal judge, the first Black federal judge in the Deep South. He served two decades and became chief judge of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, where he wrote the school prayer opinion that followed the Constitution. He died a year ago, having led a life that by any normal definition was honorable.

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So what was not “honorable”? What the Florida congressmen who switched their votes did in fear of the current misbegotten orthodoxies of what once was the party of Lincoln. To their credit, Sen. Scott had said he was “proud to honor the life and legacy” of Hatchett, and Sen. Rubio said Hatchett “lived an inspiring life of service” and, “his story is worthy of commemoration.” While Florida’s two Republican senators were right, 10 of Florida’s Republican members of Congress couldn’t be more wrong. They should be embarrassed. Judge Hatchett’s Democratic and GOP supporters should persuade the Florida Republicans who voted no to rethink, and Florida’s congressional delegation should give its unanimous support to properly recognize the legacy of the Honorable Joseph Hatchett, for whom “honorable” wasn’t just a title but a way of life.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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