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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Baltimore attorney decries ‘absence of simple human decency’ in House vote rejecting honor for Black judge | COMMENTARY

“In my life,” Eric Schuster said, “except for my father and father-in-law, there has been no man I respected more than Judge Joseph W. Hatchett.”

Schuster is an attorney with Funk & Bolton in Baltimore, specializing in financial law and, specifically, creditor rights. In 1983, after he graduated from Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, he scored a clerkship with Hatchett, who at the time sat in Tallahassee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. (Judges on the 11th Circuit review and rule on cases from Florida, Georgia and Alabama.)

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Hatchett was a trailblazing judge. He was the first Black man to sit on Florida’s highest court. According to The New York Times, after President Jimmy Carter nominated Hatchett for the federal bench in 1979, he became “the first Black man to serve on a circuit that covered the Deep South.”

And keep this in mind: Hatchett received his law degree from Howard University in 1959, during the Jim Crow era. When he sat for the Florida bar, he was not allowed to stay in the hotel where the exam was administered.

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After two decades as an appellate judge, Hatchett stepped down from the bench in 1999.

He died at age 88 last April.

In the time since then, members of Congress from Florida thought it appropriate to designate the courthouse and federal building on North Adams Street in Tallahassee the “Joseph Woodrow Hatchett United States Courthouse and Federal Building.” So they introduced a bill to that end in Congress.

Despite severe partisan divisions in Washington, the Senate gave unanimous consent in December, and the measure was expected to sail through the House. Such matters are generally routine.

But, as The Times reported this week, one Republican member of Congress, Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia, objected to the honor, citing Hatchett’s ruling in 1999 that allowing prayers at a public school commencement violated constitutional protections of freedom of religion.

Apparently oblivious to precedent — the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that school prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and in 1992 that graduation ceremony prayer constituted “a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise” — Republicans soon fell in line with Clyde, a member of the whacko right who once compared scenes from the Capitol insurrection to a “normal tourist visit.” (Clyde also refused to support giving the Congressional Gold Medal to police officers who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack.)

In the end, even Republicans who sponsored the courthouse measure voted against it.

Marylanders will not be surprised to learn that Rep. Andy Harris was among the 186 Republicans who voted nay because expecting Harris to do anything decent or effective in Congress is like expecting Back River to turn to honey.

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In March, Harris was one of only 16 members of the House, all Republicans, who opposed a bill directing the National Park Service to include in its educational materials the history of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. (The final vote was 406-16.)

Harris mocked and voted against a House measure to remember the 23 victims of a mass shooting in Texas by designating a healing garden in El Paso a national memorial. The measure passed overwhelmingly.

Last week, in the midst of Russian atrocities against Ukraine, Harris joined 62 other Republicans in opposing a House resolution affirming support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and calling on NATO to further its defense of democracy against authoritarianism. (The resolution passed, 362-63.)

When it came to the Florida courthouse name, Harris followed the right-wing herd.

This time, the vote was 238 to 187, falling short of the two-thirds threshold needed for passage. So Republicans killed the bill — at least for now — apparently because of one ruling Hatchett made, based on Supreme Court precedent, while ignoring his accomplishments. (My request for an explanation for Harris’ vote went, like earlier requests, unanswered; his staff can’t even be bothered to issue a “no comment.”)

In Baltimore, Eric Schuster read the Times account of how Republicans refused the honor for Hatchett and contacted me.

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“He was unbelievably smart,” Schuster said of the judge. “But, more importantly, he was a pioneer, a man of the utmost integrity. That is why I am at a loss for words to understand the actions of the House Republicans.

“This is not me venting about political issues. It is me venting about the absence of simple human decency and about the total lack of respect shown for those who stood for justice.”

Schuster recalled his interview four decades ago for the clerkship with Hatchett: “He said something along the lines of, ‘I can hire only Yale or Harvard Law School graduates if I wanted to, to be clerks.’ I was neither. But he was looking beyond names of schools and looking for people who could best assist him in his performance of his duties as a judge. I never forgot that.”

Schuster shared a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., words he said he often cites: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Hatchett, Schuster said, “was a man who stood tall during times of challenge and controversy. He deserved so much better from this Congress.”


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