Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
We inform. You decide.
Sunday, November 28, 2021

UF honors life of Florida’s first Black supreme court justice

Judge Joseph Hatchett was the first Black Florida supreme court justice, state-wide elected official and a pioneer for civil rights

UF faculty gathered Tuesday to honor the life of Judge Joseph Hatchett, the first black justice on the Florida supreme court who spent a long legal career breaking racial barriers and fighting for civil rights. He died at the age of 88 on April 30.

Several UF faculty members were joined by the former U.S. senator from Florida and current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson along with Rosemary Barkett, the first woman to serve on the Florida Supreme Court. Both spoke at length and with reverence about how the late judge inspired their own legal careers and his monumental impact on civil rights law in Florida.

“He was a towering champion for civil rights and justice,” Nelson said.  “And if he had to stand alone to stand on the right side of history, you know he would. Our state and society is better because of Judge Hatchett.”

A dozen more people sat in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom. The faculty members and legal professionals dressed formally while a few young law students dressed casually for class who sat quietly and learned about the legal giant that preceded them. 

Judith Russell, dean of the George A. Smathers Library system, said she thought it was important for UF to honor Judge Hatchett because of his importance to the state’s legal history and the mentoring he provided at UF’s Levin College of Law.

Hatchett was the first Black state-wide elected official, the second Black federal judge from a former Confederate state and the first Black judge on the Florida supreme court. 

Born and raised in Clearwater, Florida, Hatchett was told at a young age by a civics teacher that the future of civil rights in America would be decided in the courts. And so, he decided to dedicate his life to the law, Judith Russell said. 

After Hatchett passed the Florida Bar, he would go on to serve in private practice as an assistant U.S. attorney and as a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, Russell said.

Russell remembers meeting Judge Hatchett in 2017 when he came to UF as a part of an oral history project about his life. She was struck by his determination, which she said he carried calmly and gently. Russell said it was a joy to spend time with him.

Jon Mills, the co-director of the Levin College of Law’s Center for Governmental Responsibility, interviewed Hatchett in 2017 as part of the oral history. 

“He talked about how he would lose 20 cases a day. But he built a record that allowed them to eventually allow the federal courts to eventually win cases,” Mills said. “That changed segregation forever.”

Mills spoke about how Hatchett was constantly fighting for civil rights in the Florida and Federal courts. He was known for his blistering dissents in numerous court cases. 

Enjoy what you're reading? Get content from The Alligator delivered to your inbox

“It strikes me that he is the very definition of courage,” Mills said. “The courage it takes to lose over and over, to dissent over and over, but to understand that the arc of history is long and bends toward. Most certainly, he did a lot of bending toward justice.”

Kenneth Nunn, a UF Professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure, spoke about his conversations with Judge Hatchett and how he saw the Florida legal legend as a role model for how courts can improve marginalized communities.

Everyone at the tribute spoke with reverence for Judge Hacthett’s wisdom, his commitment to equal rights through the law and his genial character. Although the tribute comes in the wake of Judge Hatchett’s death, and the end of his long life and legal career, all those giving tribute to him carried more hope than sadness when their voices projected to the young law students sitting in attendance. 

Everyone at the tribute spoke with reverence for Judge Hacthett’s wisdom, his commitment to equal rights through the law and his genial character. Although the tribute comes in the wake of Judge Hatchett’s death, and the end of his long life and legal career, all those giving tribute to him carried more hope than sadness when their voices projected to the young law students sitting in attendance. 

“We'd like to show our debt and appreciation to this man and to his family, for the work that he's done,” Nunn said. “From my perspective, I think it's very important that he was a champion of civil rights from the beginning of his career to the end.”

Contact Christian Casale at christiancasale@ufl.edu. Follow him on Twitter @vanityhack



Support your local paper
Donate Today
The Independent Florida Alligator has been independent of the university since 1971, your donation today could help #SaveStudentNewsrooms. Please consider giving today.

Christian Casale

Christian is a third-year history student also pursuing a certificate in international relations. In the past, he’s served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Valencia Voice. He’s now a University General Assignment reporter for the Alligator. 


Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2021 The Independent Florida Alligator and Campus Communications, Inc.