Georgia Republican leads GOP revolt against U.S. House bill honoring iconic Black judge

US Capitol

by John Micek, Georgia Recorder [This article was first published in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

April 13, 2022

If there’s one thing that more than two decades of covering state government have taught me, it’s that bills renaming bridges, highways, and public buildings in honor of some famous personage are one of the last preserves of bipartisanship.

Not so for the U.S. House of Representatives, who went full “Hold My Beer” late last month, as nearly all the chamber’s Republicans, including all of Georgia’s eight GOP lawmakers, banded together to kill a bill that would have renamed a federal courthouse in Tallahassee after the Sunshine State’s first Black state Supreme Court justice.

As the New York Times reported Tuesday, the bill honoring Justice Joseph W. Hatchett had the backing of both of Florida’s U.S. senators and all 27 members of its House delegation. For all the world, its approval looked preordained.

The architect of this utterly unfathomable act, according to the Times, was a right-wing, first-term congressman from Georgia, U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde.

Ahead of the March 30 floor vote, Clyde started passing around a 1999 Associated Press story about an appellate court’s ruling striking down a public school policy allowing student-approved prayers at graduation, the Times reported.

“He voted against student-led school prayer in Duval County in 1999,” Clyde, a deacon at his Baptist church near Athens, 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 rest of the House GOP fell in line, including at least one Florida Republican House member who had previously supported the bill, the Times reported.

By the way, if Clyde’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the GOP lawmaker who compared the Jan. 6 insurrection to a “normal tourist visit,” the Times noted. Clyde defended his remarks, even though photos showed him barricading a door to keep those harmless tourists at bay, the Washington Post reported.

Clyde also opposed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, which made lynching a federal hate crime and voted against recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, according to the Times.

Ultimately, the bill fell on a vote of 238-187, failing to reach the two-thirds threshold needed for passage.

Hatchett died last April, aged 88, after a long career as a lawyer, judge, and advocate for equal rights in Florida. He spent years challenging segregation and defending civil rights protesters before becoming a judge, the Georgia Recorder’s sibling site, the Florida Phoenix, reported last August.

Hatchett was appointed to Florida’s highest court by then-Gov. Reubin Askew in 1975 after service as a federal prosecutor in Florida’s Middle District, where he became a fighter for civil rights during an era of segregation, the Phoenix reported.

Hatchett was also the first and only African American to win a statewide political race in Florida.

Later, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and he was reassigned to the 11th Circuit when it was split off in 1981, where he remained until he retired in 1999. He practiced law with a firm in Tallahassee until he retired again shortly before his death, the Phoenix reported.

Florida’s two Republican U.S. senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, separately praised Hatchett. Rubio said the late jurist “lived a life of inspiring service,” while Scott, the chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign wing, said the judge “broke barriers that have inspired countless others in the legal profession,” the Times reported.

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