Joseph Woodrow Hatchett, the first Black man to serve on the Florida Supreme Court, passed away at 88 on Saturday, May 1, according to the court. No cause of death was given, reports say. Many institutions and legal figures mourned the loss of the legend on social media.
"We lost a giant yesterday as Justice Joe Hatchett ascended to the heavens," Tallahassee attorney Sean Pittman wrote about Hatchett in a Facebook post. He also called the former justice "a staple for equal justice that all of Florida can be proud of."
Hatchett's career spans over 40 years from social justice and civil rights to fair elections in the Sunshine State. He was appointed by then Florida Gov. Reubin Askew to the state high court in 1975. Then-President Jimmy Carter would name Hatchett to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals four years later.
Beyond the court, the justice made sure to provide opportunities to aspiring Black lawyers during the period.
"He opened that opportunity," H.T. Smith, the founding director of the Trial Advocacy Program, told the Miami Herald. "His legacy was that he, himself, and through his mentoring of Black lawyers who came after him, was to open the vaults of opportunity in every field of legal endeavor: public practice to private practice, federal, state. So all of us, most of us, who are lawyers now are of Hatchett’s lineage."
Hatchett was born on September 17, 1932 in Clearwater, Florida in the midst of segregation. He graduated from Florida A&M University in 1954 before joining the Army as a second lieutenant and earning his law degree from Howard University. Miami Herald said when Hatchett took the Florida Bar exam in 1960, he could not stay in the Miami hotel where the test was given due to Jim Crow laws.
The Florida Supreme Court Historical Society presented Hatchett with the Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year.
Photo: Florida Supreme Court