Alcee Hastings, a fiercely liberal Florida congressman who was dogged by an impeachment that ended his career as a federal judge, died on Tuesday. He was 84.
Hastings’ death was confirmed by his chief of staff, Lale Morrison. The Democrat announced two years ago that he had pancreatic cancer.
Hastings was known as an advocate for minorities, a defender of Israel and a voice for gays, migrants, women and the elderly. He held senior posts on the House rules committee and the Helsinki Commission, which works on multinational issues.
But his impeachment remained a nagging footnote. It was repeatedly invoked in news accounts and seen as derailing his ambitions for a greater leadership role.
“That seems to be the only thing of significance to people who write,” Hastings said in 2013, predicting that the impeachment would be in the lead paragraph of his obituary.
Hastings was passed over for chairmanship of the House intelligence committee when the Democrats took Congress in 2006.
“Sorry, haters,” he said then. “God is not finished with me yet.”
Under Florida law, Governor Ron DeSantis will now call a special election to fill the vacant seat.
Hastings’ district is overwhelmingly Democratic – he received 80% of the vote in November. But his death lowers the Democrats’ majority to 218-211. The narrow margin is forcing the party to muster nearly unanimous votes to push legislation and bolstering Republican hopes for 2022. There are six vacancies, four from seats that were held by Democrats, two by Republicans.
Hastings was born on 5 September 1936 in Altamonte Springs, Florida, a largely black Orlando suburb, the son of a maid and a butler. He attended Fisk University and Florida A&M. After a law degree he went into private practice, taking on civil rights cases. He made a bid for the US Senate in 1970, then earned a state judgeship.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter named him to the federal bench. He was the first Black person to hold a federal judgeship in Florida since Reconstruction.
His career was marked by controversy. His harsh criticism of Ronald Reagan, his appearance at a rally in 1984 for the then presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and other moves raised questions about his impartiality. He insisted he was doing nothing wrong.
“Outside the courtroom, I speak out because I’m a citizen and I have the interests of a great number people of this country at heart,” he said. “I think it’s better to have public officials express themselves. I don’t think being a judge means I’m neutered.”
It wasn’t long before he became the first sitting US judge tried on criminal charges. Along with the Washington lawyer William Borders Jr, Hastings was accused of soliciting a $150,000 bribe from two racketeers seeking to shorten their sentences.
Borders was convicted and sentenced to five years. Hastings contended Borders acted without his knowledge and was acquitted but a judicial panel accused him of fabricating his defense. The House impeached him in 1988 and the Senate convicted him in 1989.
A federal judge reversed the impeachment, saying Hastings was improperly tried by a 12-member panel instead of the full Senate, but his exoneration was short-lived. Ruling in the case of another ousted judge, the US supreme court decided 7-2 that courts could not second-guess the Senate’s power to remove federal officials.
By then, Hastings had won a seat in Congress. He won the seat after two bitter runoffs fueled by accusations of racism in the largely Black district. At one point, in his heated race against Lois Frankel, he snapped to a reporter: “The bitch is a racist.” He went on to win and was re-elected time after time.
Frankel earned her own ticket to Congress 20 years later, as a Democratic colleague.
Hastings remained no stranger to controversy. In 2011, a former aide filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, claiming he hugged her against her will and suggested they go to his hotel room. Hastings called the accusations “ridiculous, bizarre, frivolous”. The House ethics committee cleared him.
“I’ve enjoyed some of the fights, and even the process of being indicted and removed from the bench,” he said in 2013. “All of those are extraordinary types of circumstances that would cause lesser people to buckle. I did not and I have not.”
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