Former chief judge Elbert Tuttle of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals watched with special satisfaction the swearing-in of a new judge here Friday and termed it "the complete turn of the wheel."
The judge is Joseph W. Hatchett, 48, the first black to serve on a federal appeals court in the Deep South. Hatchett resigned from the Florida Supreme Court to accept the appointment to the federal bench.
The ceremony symbolized the breakthrough of a barrier that long has frustrated black lawyers in the South. A second black, Andrew Jefferson of Houston, has been nominated by President Carter to join Hatchett on the 5th Circuit, and the Justice Department hopes that black judges will be sitting in District Courts in 10 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy by the end of the year.
Last year, Robert Collins, whose law firm had a long record of civil rights cases in Louisiana, became the first black federal judge to serve in the South. He presides over the District Court in New Orleans.
Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, who served 15 years as a judge on the 5th Circuit, attended Hatchett's investiture, the formal name for the swearing-in ceremony, in the traditional high-ceilinged, mahogany-paneled courtroom on the fifth floor of the downtown Post Office building here.
Florida Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Sundberg praised Hatchett as "a good friend and quality judge" who served the state "with energy, purpose, and good sense." Sundberg cited what he termed several landmark decisions written by Hatchett.
A graduate of Howard University Law School and a major in the Marine Corps Reserve, Hatchett returned to his native state in 1960 after receiving his law degree. He practiced law for six years, and was affiliated with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, until his appointment in 1966 as an assistant U.S. attorney here.
Four years later, federal judges for the Middle District of Florida selected him as that court's first magistrate, a judicial officer who conducts pretrial and other hearings and makes recommendations to District Court judges.
His performance won respect from the legal community and attracted the attention of Gov. Reubin Askew, who in 1975 appointed Hatchett to fill a vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court. Later he received more than 60 percent of the vote for a 10-year term in a statewide election against a white opponent.
He promised, Friday, "only to try to bring equal justice under law to all people." He spoke after his wife and two daughters placed his new judicial robe on him.
He joined a court which, in the 1960s, served as the major legal battleground of the civil rights movement. The largest appeals court in the nation, the 5th Circuit covers six states of the old Confederacy: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Judge Tuttle, who remains vigorous and active at 82 and still sits frequently as the senior judge, provided leadership on the 5th Circuit that rivals that of the late Earl Warren on the Supreme Court. The 5th Circuit was dominated by judges who, like Tuttle, were Eisenhower-appointed Republicans.
Their decisions translated the Supreme Court's basic school desegregation decision of 1954 into a broad mandate for racial justice and equality under law that helped transform the South politically and socially.
The 5th Circuit courts enforced the right of peaceful protest by civil rights demonstrators and wrote landmark decisions upheld by the Supreme Court that implemented school desegregation and struck down discrimination in voting registration, jury selection, public accommodations and employment practices in the states that most resisted change.
Later decisions by the 5th Circuit Court extended the 14th Amendment protection of due process and equal protection in such fields as state penal and mental health institutions.
Tuttle said the appointment of Hatchett "is part of affirmative action by the president." He said that Bell and Carter "are definitely seeking out competent black lawyers for appointment."
The merging of historical action with historical result is reflected by Hatchett's joining an appeals court that now includes Frank Johnson, who as a District Court judge issued the order that allowed the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
That event, and the violence that preceded it, riveted the nation's attention on deprivation of voting rights and led directly to passage of the voting rights act that year.
More than 2 million blacks have swelled the voting rolls in the South. This helped change the attitudes of southern senators, whose consent is necessary for judicial appointment in their states.
Fear of white retaliation was removed in 1976, when Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) cleared the way for the appointment by then-president Ford of Matthew Perry, the leading civil rights lawyer in South Carolina, to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals.
Thurmond acted with the knowledge that he faced reelection in 1978 in a state in which a fourth of the registered voters were black.
Perry accepted with the knowledge that such a clue from Thurmond would be seen by other southern senators that appointment of black judges would be politically acceptable. Perry was confirmed by the Senate last month as a District Court judge, and is to return to South Carolina as the first black federal judge for that state.
"It has not been difficult to get southern senators interested" in naming black judges, according to Michael Egan, deputy attorney general, who is primarily responsible for screening judicial selections.
Other blacks who have been nominated by Carter but whose names are being processed for District Court judgeships include Alcee Hasting of Miami, a Florida state judge; Horace Ward, a former Georgia state senator and now a state judge; Fred Gray, the first black to serve in the Alabama Legislature; U. W. Clemon, an Alabama state senator and civil rights activist from Birmingham, and Gabrielle McDonald, a lawyer in Houston.
Egan said he anticipates that there will be a black District Court judge selected in Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, and that he is hopeful that there will be one in Arkansas.
Because legal training for blacks did not exist in the South until after World War II, the disporportionately small pool of experienced black legal talent results in what Egan terms "the paucity of people who are qualified."
Because of that, he said, "we may very well go for a black who is rated "qualified" [by the American Bar Association] compared with an "exceptionally well-qualified" white."
In addition to new black judges in the South, eight women have been named in the region to fill new positions created by the omnibus judgeship bill passed by Congress last year. Two of them will serve on the 5th Circuit Court.
The bill created 117 new district judgeships, 48 of them in the 11 states of the old Confederacy, and 35 new circuit judgeships, including 11 on the 5th Circuit Court.
There will be no black or woman judge in Mississippi, the only southern state that got no new judgeships under the omnibus bill. Although a vacancy occurred there this year, Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) sent to the Justice Department only one name, that of a white male.
And despite the changes of the last quarter century, not all southerners have rejected the racial past. One of the judges who attended the ceremony Friday confided that a retired bank president told him, in a country club locker room after the announcement of Hatchett's nomination, "I'm sorry to see that damn nigger appointed."
The judge replied, "Charlie, he's an able man, a fine lawyer, and the color of his skin has nothing to do with it."
"Well, I don't see it that way," his acquaintance responded.
"Some people haven't lost their prejudices," the judge remarked after telling the story. CAPTION: Picture, JOSEPH W. HATCHETT..."equal justice under law"