(CN) — Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings, a civil rights activist who served as Florida's first Black federal judge, has passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84.
Elected in 1992, Hastings was Florida's most senior member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He represented the state's 20th Congressional District, which encompasses metropolitan areas in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale as well as a large rural expanse of western Palm Beach County.
On news of Hastings' death, fellow Democratic Congressman Charlie Christ, a former Florida governor, described his colleague as a "civil rights champion," recalling the days when Hastings filed lawsuits across Florida to stop racial segregation.
After being denied a room at a Broward County Holiday Inn in the early 1960s, Hastings sued the hotel. The Sun Sentinel reported that within weeks, the Florida Division of Hotels and Restaurants agreed to stop racial segregation at hotels across the county.
Christ said: "As a public servant, I long admired Congressman Hastings’ advocacy for Florida’s Black communities during a time when such advocacy was ignored at best and actively suppressed or punished at worst."
Hastings mounted an unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in 1970, drawing racial ire and even death threats. According to a Palm Beach Post profile, he said during his campaign that regardless of whether he would win or lose, he intended to show Black Floridians that they can aspire to high office in Florida.
"I think I will prove, to Blacks and to whites alike, that a Negro candidate can be just as seriously concerned with taxation, with saving our environment, with providing rapid transportation and with helpful programs for our senior citizens as any white candidate is,” he said during the race.
Hastings went on to serve as a Broward County judge in the late 1970s before being appointed by President Jimmy Carter as a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida. During his tenure as a judge, the Altamonte Springs-born lawyer was outspoken on political matters, a trait generally frowned upon among members of the judiciary. He repeatedly denounced President Ronald Reagan, calling him "dumb" and a "dodo."
He once told the Orlando Sentinel, while eating peanuts in his chambers: "I figured this job out a long time ago. It's simple. Being a federal judge in America is one of the only jobs where you don't have to kiss anybody's ass."
In 1981, federal prosecutors hit Hastings with a bribery charge. The criminal case arose from an FBI sting operation in which an agent posed as a convicted racketeer who wanted to pay Hastings in exchange for releasing seized assets and eliminating his prison sentence.
Prosecutors at trial presented a phone conversation that the FBI had recorded between Hastings and Washington lawyer William Borders, who the FBI claimed was the middleman in the bribery scheme. Though the two men didn't explicitly mention a payout or reducing the convict's sentence, prosecutors maintained the duo were indeed chatting about the scheme -- in code.
A jury acquitted Hastings in 1983. But years of investigation by a special judicial panel followed. The panel, organized by the 11th Circuit, produced a report which called for Hastings' ouster, accusing him of perjuring himself in connection with the criminal case, among other misconduct.
Hastings claimed he was being targeted for his race and brusque style as a judge. He told the Washington Post in 1988, "I ain't in the club . . . . And goddammit, I don't want to be."
The U.S. Senate wound up impeaching Hastings and removing him from his judgeship. He was one of only a handful of federal judges in United States history to be removed from office by way of a congressional impeachment.
Hastings persisted in his political aspirations and mounted a failed bid for Florida secretary of state in 1990, the year after his impeachment trial.
After a long string of defeats in running for elected office, he beat then-state Representative Lois Frankel in a race for the U.S. House of Representatives seat for Florida's 23rd District. It was the start of his decades-long career in Florida politics.
Over his nearly 30 years in Congress, Hastings sponsored more than 460 bills.
He pushed for Medicaid expansion in Florida and policies to increase healthcare affordability, including allowing seniors to order medication from outside the U.S.
Hastings' support for tighter gun control measures ramped up following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a city near his district. He was a vocal proponent of assault weapon bans and universal background checks on firearm purchasers.
Throughout his time in Congress, he also established himself as an advocate for Haitian immigrants and their families.
His tenure was not without controversy, however. Among other scandals, he drew scrutiny for giving the position of chief of staff to his girlfriend Patricia Williams -- who had served as his counsel in the bribery case. Williams earned more than $3 million working for Hastings' congressional office over several years, according to a Palm Beach Post report.
The couple reportedly married in early 2019. The marriage defused a House Ethics Committee inquiry into Hastings and Williams over a 2018 rule restricting sexual relationships between House members and their staff.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement on Hastings' death Tuesday, saying he was a "champion for the most vulnerable in our society."
"Congressman Hastings was a beloved son of Florida, a respected leader in our Democratic Caucus and in the Congress. As an icon of the Congressional Black Caucus, he was an historic force in our nation’s politics," Pelosi said.
In one of his final acts in Congress, Hastings sponsored the Teacher Victims' Family Assistance Act. The law would provide $325,000 to the family of teachers and school staff murdered in the course of their jobs. The bill also includes provisions to pay for the education of those victims' children.
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