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Exterior of the Tallahassee United States Courthouse Annex, white building with several arche

Florida courthouse named for judge who broke racial barriers

| GSA Blog Team
Post filed in: Civil Rights  |  Courthouses  |  Equity

When Joseph Woodrow Hatchett took the Florida Bar Exam in 1959, he could not stay in the hotel where the test was being administered because of Jim Crow laws still in effect.

Nearly 63 years later, lawmakers passed a 2022 law clearing the way for GSA to display Justice Hatchett’s name on the U.S. Courthouse Annex in Tallahassee, Florida.

Joseph Woodrow Hatchett

Born in 1932 during segregation in Clearwater, Florida, to a mother who worked as a maid and a father who worked in an orchard, Judge Joseph Woodrow Hatchett made national headlines in 1979. He was the first Black man in the U.S. South to be appointed to the federal appeals court.

At the time he was appointed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit had jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

And, long before President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the 5th Circuit, he had already made history as the first Black judge appointed to Florida’s Supreme Court.

In 1975, then-Governor Reubin O'Donovan Askew appointed Hatchett to the Florida Supreme Court as its 65th justice. A year later, he became the first Black person to win a statewide contested election in the 20th century.

“I was extremely pleased to appoint Justice Hatchett,” Askew said during a 1990 ceremonial Florida Supreme Court session honoring Hatchett. “He served this court well. He’s gone on and served in the federal judiciary with distinction. … It’s people such as you, Judge, that make the process work.”

Hatchett graduated from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in 1954 before being commissioned as an Army second lieutenant. He served two years in the Army, and later served as a military judge in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. He retired from the Reserves in 1988.

Once out of the Army, he earned his law degree from Howard University in 1959.

After passing the Florida bar, he spent the first half of the 1960s in private practice in Daytona Beach. He practiced criminal, civil, administrative, and civil rights law in state and federal courts.

Judge Joseph Woodrow Hatchett

With the country still deep in the Civil Rights movement, Hatchett started a career in the Middle District of Florida:

  • He was appointed assistant U.S. attorney in 1966.
  • A year later, he was designated first assistant U.S. attorney.
  • In 1971, he was appointed U.S. magistrate for the Middle District of Florida.

Hatchett would go on to serve 20 years as a federal circuit court judge, becoming chief judge of the 11th Circuit from 1996 until his retirement in 1999.

A Florida state senator wrote at the time of Hatchett’s retirement that Hatchett distinguished himself throughout his life as a civil rights activist at a time when it was unpopular and often life-threatening.

His retirement marked more than 30 years of public service to Florida and the nation. But Hatchett wasn’t done working: He returned to private practice in Tallahassee where he worked until his death in 2021.

Just months before his death, the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society awarded Hatchett a lifetime achievement award. During that 2021 ceremony, Hatchett was asked what it takes to be a leader in the legal profession.

“Honesty and truth are the hallmarks of good lawyers and good judges,” he responded.

The building’s naming ceremony is scheduled for June 30.