The country lost a trailblazing pillar of the Florida legal community on Friday with the death of former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett, the first Black member of the state's highest court (Florida Supreme Court announcment available here).
Judge Hatchett, who was 88, also made history as the first Black person in the 20th century to win a statewide contested election in Florida, when he defended his Supreme Court seat in 1976. He was also the first Black judge on a federal circuit appeals court in the Deep South when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Atlanta (the predecessor of today's Eleventh Circuit). He served as the Eleventh Circuit's chief judge from 1996 to 1999.
Born during the days of segregation, Judge 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 segregation laws. In 1966, he became an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida and became the first assistant U.S. attorney in 1967. He was appointed as a U.S. magistrate judge in the district in 1971 and served in that role until President Carter elevated him to the federal circuit in 1979. He retired from the court in 1999.
In addition to serving in the judiciary for 40 years, he also worked in private practice handling civil rights law and later as chair of the appellate practice at a private law firm.
He will lie in state in the rotunda of the Florida Supreme Court building on Friday, May 7, 2021, from 11:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m.