‘He opened opportunity.’ First Black Florida Supreme Court Judge Joseph Hatchett dies at 88

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When a young Joseph W. Hatchett took the Florida Bar exam in 1960, he could not stay in the Miami hotel in which the test was given because of Jim Crow regulations.

Within 15 years, Hatchett would become the first African American to serve on the Florida Supreme Court.

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Hatchett died in Tallahassee on Friday, April 30, Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said in a post Saturday morning. Hatchett was 88 and Florida’s 65th justice since statehood was granted in 1845.

Hatchett was appointed to Florida’s highest court by Gov. Reubin Askew in 1975. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter named him to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where, the Florida Supreme Court notes, “he became the first African American to serve in a federal circuit that covered the Deep South at the time.”

Twenty years later, after retiring in 1999, Hatchett took on another challenge when he joined with the NAACP to be lead attorney in the fight to preserve statewide preference programs for minorities and women in Florida.

“This is to continue to ensure that all Floridians have an equal opportunity to succeed, and that’s affirmative action,” Hatchett told the Miami Herald at the time.

Opening doors of opportunity

That earlier indignity at the Miami hotel during his bar exam endured. Hatchett was determined that other promising young Black law students could one day not only eat lunch in the same dining room as their white counterparts — something he was warned not to do when he took the test — but that they, too, could one day ascend as he had.

“I can remember when I became a young lawyer he pulled me aside and told me, basically, that what other people thought of my dreams were none of my business,” said attorney H.T. Smith, the founding director of the Trial Advocacy Program at Florida International University College of Law.

“His whole philosophy was that group of Black lawyers in Florida in the 1960s and 1970s, we had a responsibility to open the vaults of opportunity for ourselves and for people coming behind us,” Smith said.

“For instance, at the time Justice Hatchett took the Florida bar he could not stay in the hotel where the exam was being given. So his whole thing was by the time I came along I could stay in the hotel where the bar exam was given in Jacksonville,” Smith said. “His whole thing was ‘Let’s look at where the vaults of opportunity are and let’s do our job of intentionally opening those vaults of opportunity and taking the door off the hinges.’”

Following Hatchett’s mentorship, Smith became Miami’s first African-American assistant public defender and first African-American assistant county attorney. When Smith went into private practice it was as the head of the first Black-owned law firm practicing in downtown Miami.

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“I was the first Black public defender in large part because of Justice Hatchett,” Smith said. “It wasn’t Justice Hatchett then, it was Joe Hatchett attorney who talked about how we focus on where the opportunities are. In the Public Defender’s Officer there are a lot of jobs there — there can be 40, 50, 100 jobs now. And, with that in mind, when I left and went to the County Attorney’s Office as the first Black lawyer there, every time I left I followed Judge Hatchett’s advice and made sure I did not leave until there was more than one.”

Florida born, legal career

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett was the first African American to serve on Florida’s highest court when he was appointed by Gov. Reubin Askew in 1975.
Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett was the first African American to serve on Florida’s highest court when he was appointed by Gov. Reubin Askew in 1975.

Born in Clearwater, Florida on Sept. 17, 1932, Hatchett graduated from Florida A&M University in 1954. He served as a second lieutenant in the United States Army and entered Howard University School of Law in 1956. He earned both his law degree and bar admission in 1959.

Hatchett first went into private practice in Daytona Beach where he practiced 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 its obituary, the Florida Supreme Court noted that in 1976, when Hatchett defended his seat on the state’s highest court, he 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.”

‘Crossover appeal’

“Judge Hatchett was such a fair man who had what we call ‘crossover appeal,’ Smith said. “That’s why he was able to be the first Black person to win a stateside race. People who came in contact with Joe Hatchett — black and white, young and old, in the north part of Florida and in the south part of Florida — were not only impressed with his brilliant mind but were also impressed that he had a level head and open heart and even hand.”

When he retired from the bench in 1999 and returned to private practice in Tallahassee a Miami Herald editorial opined: “Judge Hatchett’s exemplary 20-year career on the federal bench is a laudable accomplishment made all the more remarkable by his humble beginnings. His mother worked as a maid, his father as a fruit picker. Judge Hatchett’s rise to this position of eminence during a period of rapid social change reminds us what people of talent can achieve if given a fair chance.”

Others followed Hatchett to Florida’s highest court, such as Justices Leander Shaw Jr. and Peggy Ann Quince. Smith doesn’t want today’s Black lawyers to forget that.

“He opened that opportunity. Here comes Justice Shaw after him and after Shaw, Peggy Quince. His legacy was that he, himself, and through his mentoring of Black lawyers who came after him, was to open the vaults of opportunity in every field of legal endeavor: public practice to private practice, federal, state. So all of us, most of us, who are lawyers now are of Hatchett’s lineage,” Smith said.

“By the way, a lot of Black lawyers don’t know that,” Smith added. “You know how people are trying to find out where their family came from and stuff like that? Well, a lot of Black lawyers need to do the same thing when hearing about the death of Judge Hatchett. A lot of them will be shocked to know that, Yes, you are smart. Yes, you worked hard. But a part of why you have been successful and where you are today traces right back to Joe Hatchett.”

Survivors and services

Hatchett’s survivors include his children Cheryl Clark and Brenda Hatchett; eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife Betty Hatchett.

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

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