Few thought Supreme Court Justice Joseph Hatchett had much of a chance at winning a statewide election in Florida, where no African American had ever won a statewide race.
Gov. Reubin Askew had appointed Hatchett to the state’s highest court in 1975, ignoring the fact that he would face an election in 1976. Askew defended his choice to friends who questioned his wisdom, insisting that Hatchett, a former federal prosecutor and magistrate and defender of civil rights, would make a good judge and perhaps help save a Supreme Court that seemed to be disintegrating.
Hatchett’s opponent in the 1976 election, Miami Circuit Judge Harvey S. Duval, had all the credentials and a family history familiar to many Floridians. There was even a county that bore his family name, and he had lots of friends around the state’s clubby judicial system. Surely, he could not be defeated.
The story of that election and other tales were front and center Saturday as Hatchett’s family, former law clerks, his 1976 campaign manager, and fellow judges gathered at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee to mark a life well lived and mourn his death. It was familiar ground for Hatchett, who had been a member of the church for some 50 years.
Several of his former law clerks, who now serve as state and federal judges, were among those who described Hatchett’s life as a judge. They included U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, U.S. Magistrate Judge Monte Richardson of Jacksonville, and former First District Court of Appeals Judge Robert T. Benton.
Howell Ferguson, a former Askew aide who managed that first campaign, called it “the opportunity of a lifetime.” Ferguson had just completed work on Askew’s staff at the time and had never run a campaign, but said the experience was like being asked to coach Michael Jordan — “You didn’t have to work that much.”
Hatchett limited contributions to $100 but still raised the $100,000 maximum allowed for judicial candidates, Ferguson noted.
Former Judge Benton recalled Hatchett’s very first debate in Panama City. Duval got up first and described his family’s far reaching roots, noting that his ancestors included one who had that county named for him.
After listening to Judge Duval brag about his family’s Florida background, Hatchett stood up next and noted that his own family had been in Florida for 150 years “and nothing is named for them.”
At that point, Hatchett won over everyone in the room, Ferguson said. He carried the election with 63 percent of the vote. He remains the only Black person to win a statewide race in Florida.
Years later, Hatchett, who loved to fish, bought a condo in Panama City. He also owned a farm near Tallahassee and once owned 40 head of cattle. One former clerk drew laughter when he described Hatchett’s efforts at growing grapes and making wine.
“If you never tasted it, you missed a bullet,” Benton said. “But if you want to taste it, there is a lot left over.’’
Hatchett was born in Clearwater, grew up in St Petersburg, and took the Florida Bar Exam in 1959 when Black applicants could not even stay or eat in the hotel where the test was administered.
His mother was a 50-year old maid when he was born and his father was a fruit picker. He was the youngest of five children, and earned a full academic scholarship to Florida A&M University.
He was attracted to the law after a college professor took his class to the Florida Supreme Court to watch arguments in a legendary civil rights case brought by Virgil Hawkins, an African American lawyer who sued the state after he was denied admission to the University of Florida Law School.
Twenty-five years later, Hatchett was a member of the court he had watched with his class and helped right the wrong that had been done to Hawkins.
He married his childhood sweetheart on his way to law school at Howard University and supported his family working at night at the post office while taking classes during the day.
Grandson Rashad Green, a Tallahassee lawyer, in a biography written for the 11th Circuit’s Historical News, described Hatchett’s early days of practicing law. Expecting his first child, Hatchett decided to leave his law practice and take a job driving a truck.
A friend saw him walking to the bus station and stopped to give him a ride. When Hatchett explained what he was doing, the friend offered him free office space if he wanted to open his own law practice. Hatchett accepted and spent years defending the civil rights of protesters in the 1960s, even suing the Daytona Beach schools to desegregate while his wife was teaching in one of the schools.
His civil rights work led to a job as a federal prosecutor, a first in the deep South. His success as a prosecutor led to an appointment as a federal magistrate in 1971, another first in the South for an African American.
Hatchett’s work as a magistrate attracted attention from Askew, who appointed him to the state’s highest court in 1975. His years on the Supreme Court led to a 1979 appointment to the 11th Circuit by President Jimmy Carter. He retired from the bench in 1999 and returned to a Tallahassee law practice.
His daughter, Brenda Hatcher, spoke for the family, saying Hatchett never talked about race, but only about what is right and wrong.
“He never talked against people, but against policy,’’ she said.
Hatcher is survived by two daughters, eight grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren.