Joseph Hatchett, FL’s first Black Supreme Court justice, dead at 88

Joseph Woodrow Hatchett poses with family members in 1975. Credit: Mark Foley via State Library and Archives of Florida

My all-time favorite judge has died. He was only 88 years old. I had hoped he would live forever.

Judge Joseph Woodrow Hatchett, a Clearwater native, was our first Black Supreme Court Justice, appointed to the court in 1975 by then Gov. Reubin Askew. He died Friday.

He was a soft spoken, low key sort of man who graduated from Florida A & M, one of our best known historically Black universities, and went on to get his law degree from Howard University.

He was one of several prominent lawyers who fought for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1960s and served as an assistant United States attorney for the Middle District of Florida for several years.

Askew put him on the Supreme Court at an important moment, when the place was falling apart. He replaced former Justice David L. McCain, who later died a fugitive from drug smuggling charges.

In 1976, Hatchett retained his seat in a contested statewide election, becoming the only African American to do so in Florida during the 20th Century. It was the last contested election for the court before Constitutional reforms moved state appeals judges to an uncontested merit election system.

Also in 1976, our paths crossed after I was sentenced to jail for refusing to reveal the source of a news story published in the St Petersburg Times in November 1973. The story, about improprieties in local government, wasn’t all that important — but Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney James T. Russell and Circuit Judge Robert Williams took offense that I had accurately reported what a grand jury in Dade City had done.

On the very day my story was published, I received a subpoena issued by Russell ordering me to appear in Dade City later the same day. Times Editor Eugene C. Patterson and I were accompanied by the Times lawyers for a late afternoon appearance that ended with me being sentenced to jail after I refused to answer questions posed by Russell and the judge.

It was all new to me. Russell wanted to know the source of every paragraph in the story. I refused to tell him. Judge Williams was waiting in the next room and ordered me to respond to Russell’s questions. I refused and was quickly sentenced to five months in the Pasco County Jail.

Russell was not content with one swing of the bat and quickly subpoenaed me to come back to the courthouse and appear before the grand jury I had written about. I took my crayons with me.

I gave the grand jurors a color coded copy of the story, coloring the information I got from sitting in a hallway outside the grand jury room in blue, the two or three paragraphs I got from sources I would not name in green, and all the information that came from Russell himself in purple. Needless to say, Russell and the judge were not amused. So they added 90 days to my sentence.

I had three children at home who had heard about the jail sentence before we could drive back home to New Port Richey from the courthouse in Dade City. I was pretty much convinced I was going to spend time in jail. I bought up a few books I thought would make good reading in jail and waited while our lawyers appealed.  The first five-month sentence was tossed by the 2nd District Court of Appeal, but they seemed to like the idea of me spending 90 days in jail and approved that sentence.

That put me on a path to the Florida Supreme Court — a place where I had never been. Hatchett’s opinion in my case granted a limited privilege to all Florida reporters who might have sources to protect, a first in the state. It has been used many times over the years to block politicians who would like to know where we get information.

I had never met Hatchett before I went to watch arguments before the court in early 1976, but knew some of the other judges. We had no idea what they might do with my case, but lawyer Talbot “Sandy’’ D’Alemberte, the best friend any reporter could have, was hopeful. (Unfortunately D’Alemberte died a year ago, so all my heroes are disappearing.)

Since that decision in 1976, Hatchett and I have appeared together to talk to various audiences about the court and whatever might be going on in legal circles. He was always great and a real friend of those who want to know what is was happening in our world.

Hatchett left the Florida Supreme Court in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He was reassigned to the 11th Circuit in Atlanta when it was split off from the Fifth Circuit and served there until 1999.

He retired to Tallahassee and joined the law firm Akerman Senterfitt in Tallahassee.

Contacted late Friday, his grandson Rashad Green said the family discovered Hatchett’s death Friday afternoon after he failed to respond to a FaceTime appointment he kept every day with family members.

“I always thought my grandfather was a super-hero, but I never really understood until I was practicing law,” Green said.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.