February 3, 2021
"A Country Still Striving to Give its People Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness"
President, Tampa Lawyer Chapter
This blog is part of a Black History Month series celebrating the contributions and achievements of African Americans.
As the grandson of Joseph Woodrow Hatchett, who became the first African American appointed to the Florida Supreme Court since reconstruction and the only African American to win statewide election besides President Obama, the importance of participation in the democratic process was instilled in me at an early age. I can recall my mother talking about what it was like to be the daughter of a Florida civil rights icon during the civil rights movement. Those stories, as painful as they are, provided a greater understanding of democracy and all that it encompasses. It encompassed combatting institutionalized oppression and systemic racism, risk of loss of life and disfigurement, attendance at newly desegregated public schools, jail time for peacefully violating discriminatory laws and policies, and navigating discriminatory election practices and voter suppression. My grandfather, when describing what it was like to live during that time, once said, “Whites ruled everything and dared you to step out of line. We just weren’t going to take it anymore. That was the civil rights movement.” Against the backdrop of a rewarding, but also painful, motif of family history, I learned about the life-long struggle that was responsible for my very existence.
My upbringing cultivated a passion for pursuing equality and justice for all. Shortly after my high school graduation, I enrolled at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. I declared political science my major, hoping to one day attend law school and to learn more about human relationships, societal norms, and its practical application to democracy. Speaking to the importance of engaging in the democratic process, my grandfather once noted that “law[s] shape the conduct of human relationships, how we live with other people. But human relationships should be powerful in shaping law.” Beyond immersing myself in the social landscape of college activities, I accepted an internship opportunity at the Executive Office of the Governor’s Office of Adoption and Child Protection. This experience brought me face-to-face with the very real-life consequences of decades of institutionalized racism, discriminatory policies and laws solely designed to shape the conduct of human relationships. The corollary was obvious and personified by the circumstances of the children and families we worked with. Using our understanding of human interaction as a guide during the legislative process may have helped the government avoid playing a role in creating the circumstances those children fell victim to. As you could imagine, this experience fueled my passion and had a profound impact on my views of life and the fragility of the human experience. As an upperclassman, I was invited to attend the Florida Student Leadership Forum on Faith and Values, which was hosted by former United States Senator Bill Nelson, and his wife, Grace. Its core mission is to train the next generation of community leaders, challenging them to embrace and apply concepts of humility, reconciliation, purpose, and passion. This experience provided a sense of hope, as it was the first time I had encountered a national leader that understood the power of human relationships and its role in shaping the law.
Upon graduation from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a lawyer and immediately enrolled in law school. At this point in my life, I became determined to graduate and use my legal education to effect positive change in my community. After my 1L year, I began searching for opportunities that would lead to a legal career path rooted in public service. During my 2L year, the opportunity was presented when I received an offer to serve as a judicial extern to the Honorable Monte C. Richardson, United States Magistrate Judge for the Middle District of Florida. In that role, I worked primarily on immigration and social security appeals, which were forms of the human experience I had not yet encountered, and I enjoyed this work very much. In fact, I continued this work beyond the expiration date of the externship, and, upon graduation, I was awarded pro-bono honors distinction for my achievements and the time I spent working as a judicial extern. I eventually graduated, sat for the bar exam, and began searching for employment. I was very fortunate and humbled to have been offered the opportunity to begin my legal career serving as law clerk to the Honorable Charles R. Wilson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. After completing my clerkship, I joined the Office of the State Attorney for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida, where I had hoped to serve the public interest for decades to come. While I thoroughly enjoyed working as an Assistant State Attorney, eventually, I decided that my personality, professional skill set, life-passion, and experience was better utilized defending the public interest, rather than prosecuting it. Today, I represent people who have been charged with crimes and those asserting constitutional rights violations against the government.
All things considered, the last four years have been a glaring example of the importance of meaningfully and intentionally participating in democracy. But even in this shameful, tumultuous moment in our nation’s history, I remain optimistic for the future of America and democracy world-wide. I am hopeful because the United States Constitution vests all power in American citizens to realize and make good on America’s promises. But that power alone is unavailing without the affirmative and collective actions of all Americans working together to exercise and apply their collective power to achieve a more perfect union. Almost one half-century ago, during an interview for The South Magazine, my grandfather, speaking about his hope for the future of America over the next century, said his “dream [was] to see a country still striving to give its people life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Looking back on the progress that has been made in America since, and considering the tremendous stress test our democracy underwent during the last four years—at times bending, but never breaking—I very much see an America still striving to give its people life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am now very much looking forward to teaching my children about democracy and how important it is for them to engage and participate meaningfully. They will know the struggle responsible for their very existence.