Pinellas County-based Democratic state Sen. Darryl Rouson says that it was men like former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett who inspired him to enter the legal profession more than 40 years ago.

What You Need To Know

  • Joseph W. Hatchett was born in Clearwater and raised in Pinellas County

  • Hatchett became the first African-American to serve on the Florida Supreme Court

  • Hatchett went on to serve two decades on the U.S. 5th (and then) 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

  • More Politics headlines

Hatchett, who died in April at the age of 88, made history in 1975 when then Florida Gov. Reuben Askew appointed him to become the first African-American to serve on the state’s highest court. 

“It was groundbreaking. It was trailblazing. It was pioneering. And it certainly gave many of us the impetus to go into law,” Rouson told Spectrum Bay News 9 on Wednesday about how significant was the announcement that Hatchett would become a state Supreme Court Justice.

Rouson sent a letter to Florida's U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott last week, calling on them to sponsor legislation in the U.S. House (H.R. 4771) that would designate the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Tallahassee as the “Joseph Woodrow Hatchett United States Courthouse and Federal Building.”

“It’s high time that a federal courthouse in the state of Florida be named after an African-American lawyer/jurist who showed us how to respect the law,” says Rouson.

The House bill is sponsored by Tallahassee Democrat Al Lawson, and is being co-sponsored by every member of the Florida Congressional delegation, both Republican and Democratic. 

Hatchett, a native of Pinellas County, ultimately left the Florida Supreme Court in 1979 when then-President Jimmy Carter named him to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, becoming the first African American to serve in a federal circuit that covered the deep south at the time (in 1981 the 5th Circuit was divided into two circuits, with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals created to oversee the judicial districts in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Hatchett moved to serve in the 11th Circuit Court).

Hatchett attended Florida A&M University in 1954. He earned his law degree from Howard University in 1959, and began private practice in Daytona Beach. He was then appointed assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida in 1966, and in 1971 was appointed U.S. magistrate for the Middle District.

The fact that the federal courthouse in Tallahassee could be named after Justice Hatchett is extraordinary, says his grandson, attorney Rashad Green, who has law offices in Tampa and Tallahassee.

“He was a public servant, and he was somebody who cared about the wellbeing of the public, and that's the way he lived his life," said Green. "He affected many, many people in the community."

Tampa-based attorney Roscoe Green says that his grandfather was a role model to him and his brother – and says that he was extremely extremely humble.

“I don’t know we ever heard him ever even mention that he was a judge,” he said Wednesday.  “And he treated everybody equally. And with respect. He was just an outstanding human being. He was a fantastic grandfather.”

H.T. Smith, the founding director of the Trial Advocacy Program at Florida International University College of Law, said Hatchett was a “trailblazer” in being appointed to high court, but adds that what was important was how he was able to “open the vaults of opportunities for number two, number three, number four, number five and everybody that comes behind that. And he understood that.”

After leaving the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999, Hatchett went on to work with the NAACP and joined Ackerman, a private law firm. In 2018, he retired from the practice of law.

“His concern was always for others before himself, and so his life is an example for us to follow,” says grandson Rashad Green. “I think that people should find comfort in knowing that he really talked the talk and he walked the walk. That’s what I would leave the community with.”