FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Rep. Alcee Hastings, the fiercely liberal longtime Florida congressman who was dogged throughout his tenure by an impeachment that ended his fast-rising judicial career, died Tuesday. He was 84.
Hastings' death was confirmed by his chief of staff, Lale M. Morrison. Hastings, a Democrat from the Fort Lauderdale area, announced two years ago that he had pancreatic cancer.
Hastings was known as an advocate for minorities, a defender of Israel and a voice for gays, immigrants, women and the elderly. He held senior posts on the House Rules Committee and the Helsinki Commission, which works with other countries on a variety of multinational issues.
President Joe Biden called Hastings “a trailblazing lawyer” whom he admired for his “singular sense of humor, and for always speaking the truth bluntly and without reservation.”
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb directed flags in the state be flown at half-staff through sunset today in honor of Hastings.
Throughout his career, Hastings' impeachment remained a nagging footnote.
“That seems to be the only thing of significance to people who write,” Hastings told The AP in 2013.
After earning his law degree he went into private practice, frequently taking civil rights cases pro bono. He made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 1970, then earned a state judgeship.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter named him to the federal bench. He was the first Black person to hold a federal judgeship in Florida since Reconstruction.
From the start, his career was marked by controversy. His harsh criticism of President Ronald Reagan, his appearance at a 1984 rally for then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and other moves considered unusual for a sitting federal judge raised questions about his impartiality. But Hastings insisted he was doing nothing wrong.
“Outside the courtroom, I speak out because I'm a citizen and I have the interests of a great number people of this country at heart,” he said. “I think it's better to have public officials express themselves. I don't think being a judge means I'm neutered.”
It wasn't long, though, before his judicial career was derailed. He became the first sitting U.S. judge tried on criminal charges.
Along with Washington lawyer William Borders Jr., Hastings was accused of soliciting a $150,000 bribe from two convicted racketeers seeking to shorten their sentences. Hastings contended Borders solicited the bribe without his knowledge.
Borders was convicted and sentenced to five years. Hastings was acquitted, but it didn't put an end to questions about his ethics, and a judicial panel accused him of fabricating his defense. Though Hastings contended Congress' actions amounted to double jeopardy, the House impeached him in 1988 and the Senate convicted him in 1989.
A federal judge later reversed the impeachment, saying Hastings was improperly tried by a 12-member panel instead of the full Senate, but his exoneration was short-lived. Ruling later in the case of another ousted judge, the Supreme Court decided 7-2 that courts could not second-guess the Senate's power to remove federal officials from office.
By then, Hastings had already won a seat in Congress in 1992, taking his oath before the same body that had impeached him.