Joseph W Hatchett

Black History Hero | State Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett
Posted on 02/16/2020
Justice Joseph Hatchett with daughters

Joseph W. Hatchett, an award-winning Florida attorney, made history as the state’s first Black Supreme Court justice. Hatchett was also the first Black justice appointed to the federal court of appeals in the south as well. To this day, Hatchett still works to promote diversity in the legal profession.

Hatchett was born in Clearwater, Fla. on September 17, 1932. Not much is written about his past, but his mother worked as a maid while his father picked cotton. Despite these meager beginnings, Hatchett entered Florida A&M University and graduated with a degree in political science in 1954.

Because of Jim Crow, Florida law schools wouldn’t admit Hatchett, so he traveled to Washington, D.C. to enter Howard University’s law program In 1959, he graduated with honors. But in order to practice he had to take the Florida bar exam held at the Dupont Hotel, which at that time didn’t provide accommodation to Blacks. Despite traveling from a hotel further away than others, he passed on the first try.

Between 1960 and 1966, Hatchett worked for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in part to combat the segregation he and others faced nationwide. Hatchett then went into private practice in his home state as a civil rights attorney. His good work led to his selection by then-governor Reubin Askew to become the state’s first Black Supreme Court judge. Hatchett was sworn in on September 2, 1975, making history again as the first Black judge to be reelected the following year. Hatchett served in the post until he resigned in 1979.

That year, then-President Jimmy Carter appointed Hatchett to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The selection was also historic, as Hatchett was the first Black justice to serve as a federal appeals court judge in the South. In 1981, the Fifth Circuit split and Hatchett served as a judge for the court’s Eleventh Circuit. He remained as a judge for the Eleventh Circuit until he left the bench in 1999.

In 2005, the National Bar Association recognized Hatchett’s contributions by inducting him into its Hall of Fame for his 40-plus years of service in the name of justice and equality. He was also awarded the Spirit of Excellence award by the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.

Today, Hatchett, just shy of his 82nd birthday, is an attorney for Akerman LLP in Tallahassee. He works as the firm’s co-chair of appellate practice and serves as the co-chair of the firm’s Diversity Committee.

NAACP Logo graphic

SDIRC would like to thank the Indian River County NAACP Branch #5151 for providing the content in today's 'Black History Heroes' biography.