Republican Congressman changes vote, court to be named for state’s first Black Justice Hatchett

Justice Joseph Hatchett

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

A bill to name the federal courthouse in Tallahassee for the state’s first Black Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Hatchett, has gotten through Congress after Florida’s District 2 representative Neal Dunn reversed his vote.

A group of Republicans blocked passage on the initial vote, following the lead of Dunn. He used an opinion from Justice Hatchett when he ruled against prayer at public school graduations, as justification for his vote.

However, Dunn reversed his stance when Rep. Al Lawson brought the bill back. The measure passed by a 230-191 vote.

Dunn defended his first vote, saying in a statement that he “felt the process with this bill was rushed and deserved more study.”

 Having more information about why the courthouse should be named for Hatchett would have been helpful, Dunn said in his prepared statement.

“He is a great Floridian and American and should be recognized as such,” Dunn said. “I take issue with his decision regarding student-approved prayers at high school graduations; however, that one decision must not overshadow all his achievements. Now that I’ve had time to learn more about Judge Hatchett, I am proud to support the renaming of this courthouse.”

Dunn’s initial vote on the bill prompted Rev. RB Holmes, who is president of the local chapter of the National Action Network, to send him a letter decrying his decision.

“Your decision was unconscionable, appalling, and wrong,” wrote Holmes, pastor at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church and publisher of the Capital Outlook, in his April 29 letter.

Holmes also lauded Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott for supporting Lawson’s initial effort in the Senate.

In a statement that followed Dunn’s reversal, Holmes said “I want to sincerely express my deepest appreciation to Florida Congressman Neal Dunn for his affirmative vote to name the federal courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida, after the late Honorable Justice Joseph Hatchett.”

Following the second vote, Lawson again expressed his disappointment with the Republicans who didn’t approve the measure when it came up last month. He went on to explain his persistence for renaming the federal courthouse in Hatchett’s honor.

“Judge Hatchett was a trailblazing American judge and veteran,” Lawson said in a prepared statement. “He was a champion for social justice reform and a dedicated public servant. Despite experiencing racial discrimination, that never deterred his desire to serve in the justice system. He had a long career of prestigious judgeships, military service, and civil rights advocacy that broke barriers for the Black community.”

Hatchett, who died in April 2021, served in the Florida Supreme Court from 1975-79. 

Hatchett was appointed to the Supreme Court by former Governor Reubin Askew. Hatchett was later appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Former President Jimmy Carter subsequently appointed Hatchett to the Eleventh Circuit.

The bill next goes to the US Senate for final approval.

“It will be a proud moment when many of us gather at the federal courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida, to witness this naming ceremony,” Holmes said.

Lawson added: “Dedicating the federal courthouse in Tallahassee to Judge Hatchett would honor his influence and commitment to the enrichment of Florida, and communities of color across the country. To many, he will be remembered as ‘Florida’s voice of justice’.”