Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) have voted against naming...

Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) have voted against naming a Florida courthouse after the late Black Judge Joseph W. Hatchett. Credit: James Escher

WASHINGTON — Both of Long Island’s Republican congressmen recently voted against naming a Florida federal courthouse for a pioneering Black judge after a conservative lawmaker objected based on a nearly 23-year-old ruling on public school prayer.

Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) joined an unexpected Republican stampede to block a bill initially backed by all of Florida’s congressional delegation to rename the Tallahassee federal courthouse for the late Judge Joseph W. Hatchett.

Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.), the bill’s sponsor, deplored the last-minute vote against the renaming as the House's 238 to 187 vote failed to get a two-thirds majority to fast-track approval for it after the Senate’s earlier unanimous vote for it.

“To witness on the House floor Republican votes change in disapproval of the bill during the final seconds of roll call was abhorrent,” Lawson said after the March 30 vote.

Neither Zeldin nor Garbarino explained why they voted no. Zeldin, a Donald Trump supporter and the presumptive Republican candidate for New York governor, did not respond to requests for comment. Garbarino declined to comment.

The sudden shift against what normally occurs as a routine approval of the naming of a federal facility illustrates the power of the Republican right wing in a midterm election year.

It came after Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), who cast one of only three no votes on the historic anti-lynching bill, circulated a 1999 news story about Hatchett's ruling as an appellate court judge against student prayers in public schools just before the vote.

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett died on April...

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett died on April 30, 2021. He was 88. Credit: Florida Supreme Court

“He voted against student-led school prayer in Duval County in 1999,” Clyde told The New York Times. “I just let the Republicans know that information on the House floor.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 barred public school-sponsored prayers at graduation ceremonies, but the Duval County School District then let students determine their messages at graduation and in 1993 students at 10 of 17 high schools delivered forms of religious prayer.

A U.S. District Court upheld the practice but in 1999 Hatchett wrote the decision reversing it for a three-judge panel on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

He said the district believed it could give a “wink and a nod” to Establishment Clause jurisprudence by letting students do what it could not do — “permit and sponsor sectarian and proselytizing prayer at graduation ceremonies.”

Hatchett rose to prominence despite the Jim Crow racial segregation laws. He served as the first Black Florida Supreme Court Justice and also as the first Black judge on a federal circuit court in the Deep South.

While the House failed to fast-track the approval of the courthouse renaming, it still can approve it through the lengthier regular process where it would have to overcome the same objections.

Six of New York’s eight Republicans in the House voted against the courthouse renaming. Reps. Tom Reed (R-Corning) and John Katko (R-Syracuse) voted yes — though both face no conservative backlash because they are retiring this year.

“Judge Joseph Hatchett was a trailblazer with a lifelong commitment to public service,” Reed said in a statement to Newsday.

“As we saw in the Senate where it was passed unanimously, it should not be controversial to name a federal courthouse in Judge Hatchett's honor,” Reed said. “We need cooler heads to prevail and stop with this constant political division.”

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