Rep. Alcee Hastings, a fiercely liberal longtime Florida congressman who was dogged throughout his tenure by an impeachment that ended his meteoric judicial career, died on Tuesday. He was 84 years old.
Lale M. Morrison, Hastings’ chief of staff, confirmed his death. Hastings, a Democrat, announced his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer two years ago.
Hastings was known as a minority rights advocate, a supporter of Israel, and a voice for gays, immigrants, women, and the elderly. He served on the House Rules Committee and the Helsinki Commission, which collaborates with other countries on a wide range of multinational issues.
His impeachment, however, remained a nagging footnote. It was repeatedly mentioned in news reports, and it was interpreted as undermining his ambitions for a higher-level leadership position.
“That seems to be the only thing of significance to people who write,” Hastings told The Associated Press in 2013, predicting that his impeachment would be mentioned in the first paragraph of his obituary.
Despite his seniority, Hastings was passed over as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. But, as he had done throughout his life, he insisted that his fight was not over and that he would not be discouraged.
“Sorry, haters,” he said after being passed over for the intelligence position, “God isn’t finished with me yet.”
Under Florida law, Gov. Ron DeSantis will call a special election to fill the vacancy in the coming months. Hastings’ district is overwhelmingly Democratic; in November, he received 80 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, Hastings’ death reduces the Democrats’ House majority to a meager 218-211. Their narrow margin forces the party to muster nearly unanimous votes to move legislation through the chamber, bolstering Republican hopes of regaining control of the House in the 2022 elections.
There are six vacancies, four from Democratic seats and two from Republican seats.
The seat won by Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, R-La., who died of COVID-19 before taking office, will be filled by his widow, Julia Letlow, who won a special election. The remainder are expected to be retained by the same parties who previously held them.
Hastings was born on September 5, 1936, in Altamonte Springs, Florida, a predominantly black Orlando suburb, to a maid and a butler. He went to Fisk University and Florida A&M University. He went into private practice after earning his law degree, frequently taking on civil rights cases pro bono. In 1970, he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate and then became a state judge.
President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench in 1979. He was the first African-American to serve as a federal judge in Florida since Reconstruction.
His career was dogged by controversy from the start. His harsh criticism of President Ronald Reagan, appearance at a rally for then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson in 1984, and other actions deemed unusual for a sitting federal judge raised concerns about his impartiality. Hastings, on the other hand, insisted he was doing nothing wrong.
“Outside the courtroom, I speak out because I am a citizen and I care about the interests of a large number of people in this country,” he explained. “I believe it is preferable for public officials to express themselves. I don’t believe that being a judge means I’m suffocated.”
But it wasn’t long before his judicial career was derailed. He was the first sitting US judge to face criminal charges.
Hastings was accused, along with Washington lawyer William Borders Jr., of soliciting a $150,000 bribe from two convicted racketeers seeking to shorten their sentences. Borders, Hastings claimed, solicited the bribe without his knowledge.
Borders was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Although Hastings was acquitted, questions about his ethics remained, and a judicial panel accused him of fabricating his defense. Despite Hastings’ claim that the actions of Congress amounted to double jeopardy, the House impeached him in 1988 and the Senate convicted him in 1989.
A federal judge later overturned the impeachment, ruling that Hastings was wrongfully tried by a 12-member panel rather than the full Senate, but his exoneration was brief. Later, in the case of another deposed judge, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that courts could not question the Senate’s authority to remove federal officials from office.
Hastings had already been elected to Congress in 1992, taking his oath before the same body that had impeached him.
His path to Congress, like so many others in Hastings’ life, had been a high-profile battle. He won the seat in two bitter runoff elections fueled by accusations of racism in the predominantly Black district.
During his heated campaign against Lois Frankel, he told a reporter for The Palm Beach Post, “The bitch is a racist.” He went on to win and was easily re-elected time and again.
As a Democratic colleague of Hastings, Frankel earned her own ticket to Congress 20 years later.
Even in recent years, Hastings was not without controversy. In 2011, a former aide sued him for sexual harassment, alleging that he repeatedly hugged her against her will, pressed his cheek against hers, and suggested they go to his hotel room. Hastings called the accusations “ridiculous, bizarre, and frivolous.”
In 2014, Hastings was cleared by the House Ethics Committee, which found no “substantial reason to believe” the allegations and “a significant amount of evidence” casting doubt on them.
“I’ve enjoyed some of the fights, as well as the process of being indicted and removed from the bench,” he told the Associated Press in 2013. “All of those are extraordinary circumstances that would cause less fortunate people to crumble. I didn’t, and I still haven’t.”