Joseph W. Hatchett, the first African American Supreme Court Justice after Reconstruction in the South, was born on September 17, 1932, in Clearwater, Florida, to John and Lula Hatchett. He attended Florida A&M University, where he received a Bachelor’s of Political Science degree in 1954. Four years later in 1959, he graduated with honors in 1959 from Howard University School of Law with a Bachelor of Laws degree. From 1954 to 1956, Hatchett was a U.S. Army lieutenant. He also later served as Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve from 1973 to 1978.
After he graduated from Howard Law School, Hatchett started his private practice in Daytona Beach, Florida, which he operated until 1966. From 1960 to 1966, he served as a Cooperating Attorney for NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He was also a consultant to the City of Daytona Beach, Florida, from 1963 to 1966. Hatchett then worked in the United States Attorney’s Office for The Middle District of Florida and after a year was promoted to Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1966, the first African American to hold that position. While working for the U.S. Department of Justice as Assistant U.S. Attorney, Hatchett in 1967 and 1968 participated in a special hearing office for conscientious objectors.
Governor Reubin Askew appointed Hatchett to the Florida Supreme Court in 1975. He was sworn in on September 2, 1975, and became the first African American in the South to sit on a state supreme court since Jonathan Jasper Wright was appointed to the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1870. In 1976, Hatchett was reelected to the position, garnering sixty percent of the vote. With this statewide election, he was the first black candidate in the South to win the majority of votes. He resigned from the position on July 18, 1979. That same year, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, another first for an African American jurist.
In 1981, following the split of the Fifth Circuit, which created the Eleventh Circuit, Hatchett served as a judge for the new circuit. In 1996, he was promoted to Chief Judge for the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He stayed in this position until May 1999
In 1999, Hatchett joined Akerman LLP, based in Jacksonville, Florida, where he co-chairs the Appellate Practice and is the Diversity & Inclusion Committee’s chair emeritus. He has also been a member of several associations, including Jacksonville Bar Association, The Florida Bar, and American Bar Association. In addition, Hatchett is a member of the National Council of Federal Magistrates, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Judicial Nominating Committee.
Judge Hatchett has been recognized for his work on multiple occasions. In 1974, he received the “Man of the Year” award from Florida Jax Club. Hatchett has received honorary degrees from Florida Memorial University in 1978, Stetson University College of Law in 1980, Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in 1996, and Howard University in 1998.