‘Voice of justice’

Justice Hatchett gets honor with his name on federal courthouse

The federal courthouse was renamed for the late Justice Joseph Hatchett.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
Justice Joseph Hatchett

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

During his push to get the federal courthouse in Tallahassee renamed, former Congressman Al Lawson called Judge Joseph Hatchett “Florida’s voice of justice.”

Today the courthouse that sits at the intersection on North Adams and Call streets could easily be called the face of justice. A ceremony last Friday culminated a two-year effort with the renaming to Joseph Woodrow Hatchett U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building.

Hatchett, who died in April 2021 at age 88, served in the Florida Supreme Court from 1975-79. 

He became the 65th Justice after he was first appointed to the Supreme Court by former Gov. Reubin Askew. Following his term, Hatchett was later appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Another move up for the Daytona native who graduated from FAMU came when he was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter to the Eleventh Circuit.

Friday’s ceremony was attended by judges and attorneys from across the Southeast, along with Hatchett’s family and friends. A huge sign with the name that honors Hatchett was anchored outside and a bust was unveiled in a courtroom.

Lawson, who wasn’t on the program, witnessed what he started come to fruition from a seat in the audience.

“I was very proud to file that bill in 2021 because I knew judge Hatchett well,” Lawson said. “When I first got elected to the Florida legislature in 1982, he was always encouraging me to stay in politics.”

Askew’s appointment made Hatchett the first Black Justice on the Florida Supreme Court. In 1999, Hatchett removed himself from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and later joined Akerman law firm as a partner.

Hatchett’s rise was not easy. In 1959,  he earned a law degree from Howard University but had to contend with a Jim Crow system when he took the Florida Bar exam. Hatchett wasn’t allowed to stay in the hotel where the exam was administered.

He went on to overcome several other racial barriers in his career. In the months before his death, the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society honored Hatchett with a lifetime achievement award during a virtual event.

During the January 2021 event, a video was presented that featured former Bar Executive Director John F. Harkness, Jr., having a conversation with Hatchett. 

According to a story in the Florida Bar News, Hatchett explained what it took to be a leader in the legal profession. 

He responded with: “Honesty and truth are the hallmarks of good lawyers and good judges.” 

Despite his achievements as an attorney and a judge in the courts, Congress hedged on supporting the bill that Lawson presented to honor Hatchett three months after his death. Republicans in the House who initially supported the bill reneged over contention that Hatchett ruled against the Florida school system’s policy allowing student-approved prayers during graduation ceremonies, citing that violated constitutional protections of freedom of religion.

It was later determined that Hatchett was following precedent set by the US Supreme Court.

Lawson doubled  back with the bill, which eventually passed by a 234-193 vote as part of a must pass legislation. 

“Judge Hatchett’s work for the state of Florida speaks for itself,” Lawson said in a statement following the vote that set the stage for Pres. Joe Biden to sign the bill. “He was a groundbreaking judge and honorable man who served in our country’s military. Judge Hatchett’s leadership was demonstrated in his civil rights advocacy.”

Lawson praised Hatchett’s virtue after watching last Friday’s ceremony.

“I was real proud,” he said. “When you see something like 40 judges there all the way from Atlanta and different places and see where they came from was very rewarding.

 “I’ve brought a lot of money for people but the things I find rewarding is to see things happening like (recognizing) the survivors of Rosewood (and) to see Judge Hatchett properly recognized as a change agent during very difficult times. Those things meant more to me in my career than anything that I can think of. I really felt good.”

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