Schools and Learning

Plan To Honor Pioneering Black Judge Collapses Over School Prayer Ruling

  Rob Boston

Joseph W. Hatchett was the first Black man to serve on the Florida Supreme Court. He was many things in life: a civil rights trailblazer, a veteran, a U.S. attorney and a federal judge who served on two appellate courts.

A law firm where he worked described Hatchett, who died April 30, 2021, as “a towering figure in the legal profession. Known for his compassion, wisdom, and keen legal intellect, he broke down barriers and was a man ahead of his time on issues of social justice and equality.”

Two months before his death, Hatchett was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society. The group chose to honor him “in recognition of his highly distinguished career as a lawyer, his many years of extraordinary contributions to Florida’s Legal System as a highly respected member of the Judiciary, and his lifelong devotion to the improvement of the lives of others.”

Given his distinguished background, a proposal to name a federal courthouse in Tallahassee for Hatchett should have been non-controversial. It wasn’t. As The New York Times reported recently, what was expected to be a routine vote to honor Hatchett unraveled after a far-right congressman in Georgia attacked the judge for a 1999 ruling that struck down a system of school-sponsored prayer in Duval County, Fla.

At the time, Duval County schools had a policy allowing students to give a two-minute “message” during graduation ceremonies. Not surprisingly, the “messages” just about always turned out to be prayers.

Hatchett, who at the time was serving on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, had no problem seeing through this ruse. The school district’s policy, he wrote, “coerces objecting students to participate in prayer.”

The ruling in Adler v. Duval County School Board was in line with a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1992 that struck down coercive, school-sponsored prayer during graduation ceremonies (Lee v. Weisman), but that didn’t matter to U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) who began circulating a 1999 news story about the Adler ruling.

“He voted against student-led school prayer in Duval County in 1999,” Clyde told The Times. “I don’t agree with that. That’s it. I just let the Republicans know that information on the House floor. I have no idea if they knew that or not.”

The proposal to name the courthouse after Hatchett had the support of Florida’s two U.S. senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott – both arch-conservatives – but that made no difference. GOP House members began fleeing in terror. The vote in the U.S. House of Representatives was being fast-tracked under a procedural process that required a two-thirds vote. It failed, 237-187.

Several Florida Republicans later told The Times they initially supported naming the courthouse after Hatchett but changed their minds after learning about the school prayer ruling.

To sum up: A pioneering judge who smashed racial barriers and served his country inside and outside of courtrooms for decades can’t be honored because he once issued a ruling, in line with Supreme Court precedent, that protected students’ religious freedom but offends Christian nationalists.

It’s remarkable – and infuriating.

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