Judge Joseph Woodrow Hatchett: The First of Many, but Not the Last
The First of Many, But Not the Last – 1932-2021
By Joseline Hardrick
The death of Judge Joseph Woodrow Hatchett on April 30, 2021, came as a shock to many, especially those who knew him. Indeed, to those he had impacted, his 88 years spent on this earth seemed like a relatively short time for a man of such widespread impact.
Judge Monte Richardson posed this question at Hatchett’s May 8, 2021 funeral, which I now ask myself as I write this article: “What do you say about someone who was so impactful in so many lives?” Although I only met Hatchett once at an event several years ago in Tampa, I have felt the impact of his work in numerous ways. As many have noted, Hatchett was the first of his kind in many endeavors. So much has been written about his legal career and many accomplishments. I aim to honor his impact on the individual lives he touched and highlight some lesser-known facts about his life. I only hope these few words can do justice to such a great man and legacy.
Hatchett’s Early Years
Hatchett said that his parents insisted on success in education. His youngest daughter shared that his mother was 50 years old when she gave birth to him. His family, devoutly Christian, truly saw him as a miracle baby that would bring about great change to the family and the community. Hence, they named him Joseph, a biblical reference to the Old Testament tale of the man who had a vision and overcame so much adversity to create a new home and way of life for his people. Hatchett would later be described as “not a force of nature, but an instrument of God.” (Ted Smalls’ remarks at May 8, 2021, funeral service.)
He grew up in segregation, which would shape his fight for civil rights for minorities and women. Thus, when he wrote about discrimination, whether as a lawyer or judge, it was not based merely on the record of the case but also on his particular understanding. He had a sense of fairness that was shaped by his life experiences.
After high school, Hatchett attended the Florida A & M University in Tallahassee, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1954. He then served for several years as a second lieutenant in the Army in Korea. Next, he attended Howard University School of Law to follow in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall and other great civil rights lawyers.
He entered private practice not long after graduation in Daytona Beach, practicing criminal, civil, administrative, and civil rights law in state and federal courts. In addition, he worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), laying the groundwork for appeals challenging the constitutionality of discriminatory statutes. This early experience would shape his career.
He was soon asked to join the Civil Division of the Justice Department. He would serve as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida from 1966-68. While working there, Hatchett finally had the resources to fund his civil rights litigation. Currently, the Middle District of Florida has a Civil Rights Division, headed by Yohance Pettis, which continues the important work Hatchett began so many years ago.
Then, in 1970, the U.S Magistrate’s Act was passed. Hatchett received one of the very first appointments as a federal U.S Magistrate Judge in 1971. He became the first African-American federal judicial officer in the South. While serving there, Hatchett helped organize the U.S Magistrate’s Association, which developed an experimental interface of magistrates with district judges. Much of the work he did helped shape the ways magistrate judges operate today. Decades later, Judge Mary S. Scriven would become a federal magistrate judge and the first African-American woman to serve as a federal judge in Florida.
In 1971, while still working full-time as a United States Magistrate Judge, Hatchett joined the United States Marine Corps as a Judge Advocate General. Unfortunately, the Marine Corps had no African-American officers serving as judge advocate generals. Hence, as he was prone to do, Hatchett joined and again served his country in the Marine Corps Reserves, presiding over military cases for thirteen years.
Hatchett Appointed, then Elected to, the Florida Supreme Court
In 1975, Hatchett joined the Florida Supreme Court, making him the first African-American justice in Florida. His appointment was critical when the Supreme Court faced a crisis of character and a tarnished reputation laced with scandals and corruption. Nevertheless, he ushered in a new era when he joined.
He defended his seat in 1976 in the face of an implicitly racist contest against a trial court judge whose family was so influential in Florida that there’s a county named after them. Hatchett’s quick wit was famously on display during a debate where he stated: “My family has been in Florida for 150 years, and nothing is named after them.”
All these accomplishments meant that Hatchett became the first African-American to be appointed to the highest court of a southern state since Reconstruction, get elected to the highest state court, and win a statewide election in the South. In addition, he won the last contested election for the Florida Supreme Court before constitutional reforms moved state appeals judges to an uncontested merit election system. He is still the only African-American person to win a statewide contested race in Florida.
His first law clerk from his tenure on the Florida Supreme Court, Bob Benton, had this to say: “We have lost a giant! He remained unflappable as history swirled around and through him, what a life!”
Hatchett is described as compassionate and soft-spoken by those who had met him. Lucy Morgan, a journalist with the Florida Phoenix, remembers how Judge Hatchett while serving at the Florida Supreme Court, helped her case. Morgan was to serve a 90-day-sentence for refusing to divulge to a local prosecutor her source for a story. However, Judge Hatchett granted the limited privilege to all Florida reporters who had sources to protect. From then, he and Lucy became friends.
Not long after his tenure on the Florida Supreme Court, other African-American justices followed his path, such as Justice Leander Shaw Jr. and Justice Peggy Ann Quince, ascending to Florida’s highest court.
On May 7, 2021, Hatchett lay in-state at the Florida Supreme Court rotunda. Briefly afterward, while giving remarks to the St. Petersburg Bar Association Law Day Luncheon, Chief Justice Charles T. Canady noted: “Joe Hatchett stands as a shining example for us. He had a remarkable life that exhibits the promise of our country that is not even yet fully realized.”
Chief Justice Canady was visibly choked up as he recalled Hatchett’s experiences with discrimination. For example, he could not rent a room in the same hotel where he sat for the bar exam because of segregation.
Hatchett’s Return to the Federal Bench
Hatchett continued to blaze new trails in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to serve in the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Thus, he became the first African-American to get appointed to the federal appeals court in the Deep South. During the interviews, the Senate Committee was interested in membership in private country clubs that prohibited membership based on race. Hatchett famously stated, before asked if he belonged to one, “neither [m]y ancestors nor I have ever been part of a private club that discriminates against people based on race.”
He later served as the first African-American in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which was established in 1981 when Congress split the Fifth Circuit. While on the Circuit Court bench, he would train dozens of new lawyers as law clerks and interns. After serving as the Chief Judge for the Eleventh Circuit, he would retire from the bench in 1999. To date, he is the only African-American to ever serve as Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit.
Throughout his career, all the way to the very end, Hatchett continued to inspire many. During his funeral services, several judges and accomplished attorneys shared with his family and loved ones the initial inspiration Hatchett evoked within them, and his continued support, admiration, guidance, and mentorship.
Eleventh Circuit Judge Charles Wilson stated: “Those of us who had the privilege of serving as his law clerk, whether it’s on the [federal] Court of Appeals or the Florida Supreme Court, we sort of consider ourselves as members of a very special group because we began our careers under the tutelage of one of America’s most admired and respected judges. He’s a legend.”
Hatchett was Judge Wilson’s predecessor on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In his own right, he is a very accomplished jurist who credits his career and marriage to Hatchett—he met his wife while clerking for Hatchett in Tallahassee. He stated that he would lean on Hatchett for guidance and assistance for over 40 years, even as a federal judge.
He described Hatchett as having “remarkable intellect and sound judgment, deep compassion for people, the less fortunate and oppressed.” He noted that he never lost sight of the role the courts play in protecting the rights of people. Hatchett had “relentless courage, vision, ability, decisive, willingly courteous to lawyers, litigants, and colleagues on the bench.”
In paying his respects to Hatchett, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker stated that “he was a great judge, but more importantly a great man. It’s important that we study his history as a lawyer and as a judge. It reminds us of the importance of the role of the judiciary and the rule of law.”
He was a mentor for many black lawyers that came after him, ensuring that he tended to the trails he blazed to ensure others could follow in his footsteps. One such beneficiary was attorney H.T Smith. Smith attributes his history as the first African-American assistant public defender (and county attorney) in Miami-Dade County to Justice Hatchett’s advice.
Retirement from the Bench
Federal judges receive compensation even after retirement. Thus, many do not continue to work full-time. But never one to sit idle, Hatchett decided to join a private firm, Akerman, after leaving the bench. He helped the firm develop its Appellate Law Practice and was the department chair for many years. A former partner, Kathi Giddings, described him as “the calm in the storm” and “unflappable.” She noted that he always made you feel good about yourself. He brought out the best in everybody despite overcoming so many obstacles and being called racial epithets, even while on the bench.
Hatchett continued to innovate. As part of Akerman’s appellate practice section, Hatchett began holding court again, offering mock appellate arguments to attorneys scheduled to appear before the federal circuit court as a way to allow them to practice and receive a hands-on and valuable critique of their arguments. The program was so popular; they offered it to attorneys from outside the firm with much success. Akerman continues that practice to this day in what it calls the “Akerman Bench.”
He also continued his fight for justice and equality. He worked with the NAACP as a lead attorney and fought to preserve statewide preference programs that benefitted minorities and women in Florida. In April 2018, Hatchett retired from the practice of law.
He always made time for his family throughout his career, ensuring that they knew they were loved and appreciated. He did not “bring work home,” so to speak. He was just “Papa.” He also was a musician, fisherman, and winemaker.
So, what do you say about someone who was so impactful in so many lives? As one of his former law clerks, Ted Smalls, succinctly stated, “he gave us all gifts; it’s up to us now to carry it on.”
Finally, his grandson, Rashad Green, who has followed in Hatchett’s footsteps as a civil rights lawyer, offered this message on behalf of his family,
Papa was a great man who walked in humility. He rarely, if ever, spoke of his life achievements. His concern was always for us and not him. He lived to serve God and others. He valued and respected the sanctity of life and human dignity. He loved to fish and spend time on the farm. He loved his family with all that he had in him. That is Papa to us. Our family will miss him forever.
Justice Joseph Woodrow Hatchett is survived by Delores Grayson (his friend and partner), his children Cheryl Clark and Brenda Hatchett, eight grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. His wife, Betty Hatchett, preceded him in death in 2019.