The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Alcee Hastings, civil rights lawyer and judge elected to 15 terms in Congress, dies at 84

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings speaks at a 2008 campaign rally with Sens. Bill Nelson and Hillary Clinton, who was then running for president. He was elected to 15 terms in the U.S. House and became the dean of Florida’s congressional delegation. (Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a charismatic civil rights lawyer who became Florida’s first Black federal judge, was impeached on corruption charges and made a remarkable comeback as a liberal Democratic member of the U.S. House and the dean of his state’s congressional delegation, died April 6. He was 84.

His chief of staff, Lale Morrison, confirmed the death but did not share additional details. Rep. Hastings announced in 2019 that he was being treated for pancreatic cancer.

A pathbreaking jurist and politician, Rep. Hastings was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He became one of Florida’s first three Black members of Congress since Reconstruction when, in 1992, he was elected alongside fellow Democrats Corrine Brown and Carrie Meek.

Rep. Hastings’s arrival in the House of Representatives was a stunning turn of events. The chamber had voted only five years earlier to impeach him, in the aftermath of an FBI sting operation and bribery investigation that made him the sixth federal judge to be removed from office.

Compared at times to the equally flamboyant Marion Barry, who weathered a drug arrest and jail sentence before winning a fourth term as D.C. mayor, Rep. Hastings went on to win reelection 14 times, running on a progressive agenda that called for affordable day care, universal health care, family and medical leave for all workers, and a ban on assault weapons.

He became a senior Democrat on the House Rules Committee, which determines when and how a bill reaches the floor, and in 2004, he was elected president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, which promotes arms control and human rights. Later he served as chairman of the OSCE’s U.S. counterpart, a federal agency known as the Helsinki Commission.

But throughout his political career he was dogged by allegations of impropriety, corruption and sexual harassment, to which he responded with countercharges of racism. During a bitter 1992 primary battle with a White state lawmaker, Lois Frankel, he told the Palm Beach Post, “The bitch is a racist.”

He later apologized, to a point. “I called her a name,” he told the New York Times, “and I think my remarks were uncalled for, only because I used invective.” He added that he took offense that “she called me a crook, and I have no record anywhere in America of having a felony conviction. My only arrests are civil rights arrests.” In 2012, Rep. Hastings endorsed Frankel when she ran successfully for a nearby congressional seat.

In 2017, Roll Call reported that the congressional Office of Compliance approved a secret $220,000 settlement with one of Rep. Hastings’s former staffers, who alleged that he had made unwanted sexual advances.

Rep. Hastings called the allegations “ludicrous,” and a House ethics investigation cleared him of wrongdoing but chastised him for “certain conduct that is less than professional,” including comments about sex.

How a congressional harassment claim against Rep. Hastings led to a secret $220,000 payment

Facing little political opposition through the years, Rep. Hastings became what his colleague Meek once called “a folk hero” among African Americans. “He is a man who has come up against all the pressures, all the rage, the racism, all the things that Black men have come against,” she told The Washington Post in 1992.

Political analysts traced his success and endurance to a combination of personal magnetism, a gerrymandered district that included predominantly Black working-class sections of Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, and attention to issues relevant to his constituents, such as funding for Head Start preschool programs.

“If you talk to old-timers at rallies, everyone still calls him ‘the Judge,’ ” Robert Watson, a political historian at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., said in a 2019 interview. “The one thing he says all the time is, ‘How can I help?’ He is an old-fashioned retail politician — a baby-kisser, glad-hander and backslapper, in the Bill Clinton mold.”

“Florida used to be the Old South, and folks of a certain age remember this place in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s,” Watson added. In the case of the corruption investigation, “it’s easy to understand why they take Alcee’s word over law enforcement’s word.”

Rep. Hastings was a judge for the Southern District of Florida when, in 1981, he was indicted on charges of soliciting a $150,000 bribe in exchange for leniency toward two men convicted of stealing money from a pension fund. While his alleged co-conspirator, Washington lawyer William A. Borders Jr., was found guilty, Rep. Hastings was acquitted by a jury. (Borders was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton.)

Two federal judges suspected Rep. Hastings had committed perjury during the trial, and, after a three-year investigation, an appeals court committee concluded that he had tampered with evidence and lied at least 15 times to win acquittal. Acting on the committee’s recommendation, the U.S. House voted 413 to 3 to impeach him in 1988. The Senate convicted him the next year in a 69-to-26 vote that removed him from the bench.

Rep. Hastings had long insisted that he was innocent, saying he had been “set upon by . . . warlocks.” Standing outside the Senate chamber minutes after his conviction, he announced that he planned to become governor of Florida. “My momma had a man,” he said. “She did not have anybody that was afraid of the system.”

The perplexing case of Judge Alcee Hastings

He instead launched an unsuccessful campaign for Florida secretary of state in 1990. Two years later, he was elected to represent the state’s newly created 23rd Congressional District. His campaign received a boost from U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin, who — weeks before a Democratic primary runoff that effectively secured Rep. Hastings’s victory — overturned his conviction in the Senate.

Rep. Hastings, Sporkin concluded, should have been tried by the entire Senate, rather than a 12-member panel. Ruling in 1993 on a separate case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that impeachment proceedings were not subject to judicial review, effectively upholding his conviction.

By then he was in Congress, where his removal hovered over his tenure even as he tried to reinvent himself as a collegial, hard-working legislator. When Democrats regained the majority in 2006, he was passed over for the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee, amid criticism that he was not fit for the position.

Rep. Hastings responded in typical fashion. “Sorry, haters,” he wrote in a statement, “God is not finished with me yet.”

By one account, he was born Alcea Lamar Merritt in Altamonte Springs, a farming town north of Orlando, on Sept. 5, 1936. According to the Miami Herald, he changed the spelling of his first name early on and adopted his stepfather’s last name, Hastings. Other sources give his birth name as Alcee Lamar Hastings.

Both parents were domestic servants who moved frequently for work. Alcee stayed with a grandmother in Jim Crow-era Florida, where he picked beans and tangerines, was barred from Whites-only beaches and was bused to a segregated high school 30 miles from home.

He went on to study at historically Black universities, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1958 from Fisk University in Nashville. He was expelled from Howard University Law School for what he called “non­seriousness of purpose” before receiving a law degree in 1963 from Florida A&M University.

Jailed six times for participating in civil rights demonstrations, he made his name just months out of law school when he was refused a room at a Holiday Inn in Fort Lauderdale and filed suit. The state soon integrated hotels across Broward County, where he served as a state judge before his federal judgeship.

While in Congress, Rep. Hastings drew scrutiny for his spending habits, including the use of taxpayer money on trips abroad. In 2012, the non­partisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reported that he had paid Patricia Williams, often described as his longtime girlfriend, more than $600,000 from 2007 to 2010 to work as deputy district director of his congressional office. He insisted that she was not “family” and declined to say whether they were in a relationship.

A House ethics investigation into whether he had an improper relationship with Williams was dropped last year, following the disclosure that they had been married since 2019.

He was divorced at least twice and had three children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Rep. Hastings said he felt some vindication when, in 1997, a Justice Department investigation found that an FBI agent falsely testified about a piece of evidence during the judicial inquiry that led to his impeachment — although investigators asserted that the testimony was not crucial to the case. Memories of the episode still stung when, on Dec. 19, 1998, he voted against impeaching Clinton.

“I have more reason than anybody here to be bitter,” he told The Post after the vote, adding, “This is not a place in history I chose or relish being in.” Still, he said, he was optimistic about Clinton’s political future, considering the way his own had worked out.

“I sort of came back like gangbusters,” he said, “didn’t I?”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.