A Second Act

(Congressman Alcee Hastings died this week).

Alcee Hastings, a civil rights leader in the 1970’s, was the first black federal district judge in Florida. Judge Alcee Hastings sat on the bench in federal court while the old Miami power structure conspired to get rid of him. Later he would be indicted for bribery, acquitted and impeached anyway. Even today, the truth of the allegations against him are in dispute. The impeachment trial in the Senate only removed him from judicial office; for a second time the senators found him “not guilty” of accepting bribes. After he was impeached, he returned to private practice before running for federal office in Broward County. There he was elected to the US House of Representatives, today he is the longest-serving member of the House; a stunning reversal of fortune.

While I had one case before Judge Hastings while he was still on the bench, it did not go to trial. I was in his courtroom and witnessed him sentence a woman under the federal minimum mandatory guidelines, which he felt were unfair. He gave her a reporting date five years in the future. This was unheard of: the defendant would be able to go home and live her life for five years before having to surrender to prison. Judge Hastings disagreed with those laws, which had a disproportionate effect on black defendants. I wonder if this creative sentencing was the kind of conduct that was behind the successful effort to impeach him.

After he was impeached, Judge Hastings briefly went into private practice. He was always friendly and had a smile for everyone–and a long list of clients. After he left the bench, Judge Hastings started off, like I did, as a panel attorney, appointed by the court to represent defendants who had no money for his defense. I used to see him at MCC-Miami where we both came to visit clients. Those I know who practiced with him said that he made the transition from the bench without bitterness and did a good job for his clients. Judge Hastings had the opportunity to see the best Miami lawyers practice before him and was able to see their skills displayed.

Judicial bribery accusations were in fashion and the FBI had mounted an investigation of the Dade county judiciary they called Operation Court Broom. Sitting judges and attorneys were indicted in federal court, the Date county State court bench was accused of being a racketeering enterprise. Even “Maximum Morphonious,” a newsworthy tough judge and former Florida State beauty queen, was caught up in the allegations.

The Court Broom trials resulted not only in convictions, but Bar discipline and at least one sitting judge losing an election. A half-dozen or so lawyers were indicted for bribing the judges. All were convicted. All lost their licenses to practice law. State special public defenders not indicted had their invoices audited just to be on the safe side; one of them, former judge Ted Mastos, blamed “bad bookkeeping” on the fact that he had billed the State for more than 30 hours in a single day—they really should make accounting a required course in law school.

The most astonishing result in the Court Broom cases was the acquittal of Judge Philip Davis. Despite having been caught on tape snorting cocaine and taking a one hundred thousand dollar bribe, Judge Davis was acquitted. He was represented by Alcee Hastings.

They still talk about Hastings’ closing argument in the Justice Building. This goes to prove the wisdom that you never know what is going to happen at trial. A few years later, Davis was charged by the State for stealing money from a charity he had set up. Hastings was by then a sitting congressman and could not represent him. This time Davis, no longer a judge, was convicted. The sentence of twenty years seems rather harsh unless you take into account karma for the previous acquittal.

Another one of Hastings’ infamous clients was Yahweh ben Yahweh, a religious leader whose followers wore white robes and terrorized anyone who dared to stand up against them with violence.

Eventually the justice system came around to Judge Hastings’ view that the Sentencing guidelines were unfair. The guidelines were changed to be advisory, not mandatory. Crack cocaine guidelines were made consistent with those guidelines applicable to powder. But by then, Judge Hastings had long been off the bench. I never found out what happened to the woman who was given that five-year gift of time.

I never had the opportunity to try a case with Judge Hastings. He ran for Congress from a newly created district in Broward county, was elected and held his seat for twenty years. He never sought revenge against his new colleagues though they had voted to impeach him. I never heard anyone complain about his tenure as a Congressman. Ironically, at the time of his death he was on a committee which vetted candidates for the federal bench.

His life is strong evidence against F.Scott Fitzgerald’s adage that “there are no second acts in American lives.”