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Former Justice Hatchett dies at 88

In Memoriam
Joseph Hatchett

Justice Joseph Hatchett

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice and retired 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Joseph W. Hatchett passed away April 30. He was 88.

Hatchett was the first Black person appointed to the Supreme Court since Reconstruction, and the first Black person ever elected to public office in a statewide election in the South. He served on the Supreme Court from 1975-1979.

In January, Hatchett received the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The event included video clips from a May 2, 1990, ceremonial Supreme Court session and oral history program honoring Hatchett.

Former Gov. Reuben Askew, who appointed Hatchett to the Supreme Court in 1975, said, at that 1990 event, “He served this court well. He’s gone on and served in the federal judiciary with distinction…

Joseph Hatchett-1975

Joseph Hatchett-1975

“We want to tell you, it’s people such as you, Judge, that make the process work…. The compassion, the wisdom, the law that has to be considered…you have it and retain it.”

“Joe Hatchett is a person who lives and has lived by the ethical precepts which have historically guided the conduct of truly great judges and lawyers of our past and present,” said former ABA President Chesterfield Smith. “Joe Hatchett to me exemplifies what is best in an American judge, one who is sometimes lonely, but one who never shirks standing alone.”

Joseph Hatchett-1979

Joseph Hatchett-1979

In a specially recorded message for this year’s event, former Justice Rosemary Barkett, who also served with Hatchett on the 11th Circuit, recounted Hatchett’s career. That included graduating from Florida A&M University, a stint as a second lieutenant in the Army, law school at Howard University at a time when Thurgood Marshall went there to practice for his oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court, and then private practice in Daytona Beach.

“In Daytona Beach, he quickly became known to all of the city and county commissioners and the judges. Why? Again, in his words, ‘I was bringing the kinds of suits they had not seen before and I was before the School Board every week and before the county commission every week and up before the federal judges regularly,’” Barkett said.

Hatchett, she said, became an assistant U.S. attorney in the Middle District, and then in 1971 a Middle District magistrate. After Askew appointed him to the Supreme Court, he became the first Black since reconstruction to successfully run a statewide campaign in 1976 when voters retained him in office. In 1979, then President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the circuit bench, where he served 20 years, becoming chief judge of the 11th Circuit from 1996-99. He retired from the bench in 1999 and became a senior partner at what is now Akerman LLP in Tallahassee. He had recently retired from Akerman.

“His external gentleness and calmness are wrapped around a steel core of dedication to equality and justice,” Barkett said. “His contribution to both of those ideals in Florida and in this country throughout his life is immeasurable.”

The Hatchett lifetime achievement award presentation may be viewed here.

Born during the days of segregation, Hatchett grew up in Clearwater, Florida and attended Pinellas High School. He took the Florida Bar Exam in 1959 at a time when black examinees could not stay in the hotel where the test was administered because of Jim Crow regulations still in effect.

The National Bar Association inducted Hatchett into its Hall of Fame in recognition of his dedication to the cause of justice and equality before the courts of the United States of America, and on behalf of the African-American community. The ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession awarded him its Spirit of Excellence Award, which is presented to exceptional lawyers who have made significant contributions to the promotion of racial and ethnic diversity within the legal profession.

Hatchett was preceded in death by his wife Betty Hatchett. He is survived by his children Cheryl Clark (Edward Clark II) and Brenda Hatchett; his grandchildren Roscoe Green (Maiselyn Green), Rashad Green (Meagan Green), Joel Davis, Edward Clark III, Sharilyn Metellus (Fritz Metellus), Lauryn Davis, Marcus Clark (Wren Clark), and James Davis; and great-grandchildren Mirelyz Green, Jordyn Jean, Jaden Clark, Edward Clark IV, Heiress Clark, Jackson Woodrow Green, Jade Metellus, Hampton Leeander Green, and Poppy Clark.

Hatchett will lie in state in the rotunda of the Florida Supreme Court building on Friday, May 7, from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.

Chief Justice Charles Canady will open this ceremonial event, which also will feature a formal honor guard of the Florida Highway Patrol. Judge Robert Luck of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals also will speak on behalf of the federal court where Hatchett worked for much of his career as a judge.

The Lying in State will be broadcast live in its entirety on the Florida Supreme Court’s YouTube and Facebook pages and from its website.

Funeral services for Hatchett will be 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 8, at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee. Burial will be Monday, May 10, in Dunedin.

Further details will be posted on the Florida Supreme Court website when they become available: www.floridasupremecourt.org.

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