Alcee Hastings Dies of Cancer at 84

April 6, 2021 by Dan McCue
In this Dec. 17, 2019 file photo, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., speaks during a House Rules Committee hearing on the impeachment against President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington. Hastings, the longtime Congressman from Florida has died after a two-year fight with pancreatic cancer. The Palm Beach County Democrat died Tuesday, April 6, 2021, according to his chief of staff, Lale M. Morrison. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WASHINGTON – Rep. Alcee Hastings, the dean of Florida’s congressional delegation, died Tuesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 84.

Hastings announced his cancer diagnosis just over two years ago, but he continued to press on with his work until near the very end

Known as an energetic advocate for minorities, gays, immigrants, women and the elderly, he held senior posts on the House Rules Committee and the Helsinki Commission which works with other nations on a range of multinational issues.

“Congressman Hastings leaves behind a powerful legacy of activism and action on behalf of Floridians and all Americans. His leadership and friendship will be missed by his many friends in Congress,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern, D-Mass., agreed, saying “There was no one else like Alcee Hastings.

“He was the proud product of public schools who used his life experience to fight tirelessly for those who needed a voice, including minorities, children, and immigrants,” McGovern continued in a statement. “Congressman Hastings’ election to Congress broke barriers, marking the first time an African American was elected from Florida since the Civil War era. He went on to become the first Black chairman of the Helsinki Commission, the dean of Florida’s congressional delegation, and a respected leader on the world stage.”

“Alcee Hastings was a trailblazer throughout his career serving as Florida’s first Black federal judge and one of the first African Americans elected to Congress from Florida since the post-Civil War period,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn.

“For nearly three decades, he represented his constituents with dignity, grace and an unwavering commitment to the fight for justice,” he said, adding, “I knew on the day we met as college students that he would make an indelible impact and I was right. It has been a privilege to know him as a trusted colleague, confidante and an invaluable member of our Whip organization.”

But there was one event in his long career in public service that dogged the Fort Lauderdale Democrat for the remainder of his life in public service — his 1989 impeachment from the federal bench.

“That seems to be the only thing of significance to people who write,” Hastings told a reporter from the Associated Press in 2013, predicting it would be mentioned in the lead paragraph of his obituary.

Born Sept. 5, 1936, in Altamonte Springs, Florida, a largely Black Orlando suburb, Hastings was the son of a maid and a butler. 

He attended Fisk University and Florida A&M. 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 outspokenness created controversy. But it was a criminal charge that led to his being only the sixth federal judge in U.S. history to be removed from the bench.

It started with an accusation that he and a lawyer, William Borders Jr., solicited a $150,000 bribe from two convicted racketeers in return for shorter sentences.

Hastings always maintained Borders solicited the bribe without his knowledge.

Borders was eventually convicted and sentenced to five years in prison; Hastings, meanwhile, was acquitted.

But that did not mean an end to his problems stemming from the case. A judicial panel, dissatisfied with the outcome, launched its own investigation and that ultimately led to his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988 and his conviction in the Senate, in 1989.

A federal judge later reversed the impeachment on the grounds that Hastings had been improperly tried by a 12-member panel instead of the full Senate. But the apparent victory was short-lived. 

Not long afterward, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of another ousted judge that courts can not second-guess the Senate’s power to remove a federal judge from office.

Ironically, by the time the ruling was handed down, Hastings had been sworn in as a member of Congress.

In was 1992, and would serve another 15 terms, becoming the longest serving member of Congress in the Sunshine State’s delegation.

“If you had Congressman Hastings on your side, you had one of the most effective advocates in Congress in your corner,” McGovern said. “We sat side by side in the [Rules Committee] for many years and I watched him take down phony arguments and lift up the truth with a turn of a phrase that only he could deliver. I have lost a friend, this Congress has lost a giant, and those who all too often go unseen in America have lost a champion. All of us in the Rules Committee are devastated by this loss and we send our prayers and condolences to Alcee’s family, staff, and constituents.”

Despite his seniority, Hastings was passed over for chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee when the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, no doubt due to his judicial impeachment.

And that would not be the end of personal controversies. 

In 2011, a former aide filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him, claiming he frequently touched her and even suggested they go to his hotel room.

Hastings called the accusations against him “bizarre and ridiculous.” In 2014, the House Ethics Committee cleared Hastings, finding it had no “substantial” reason to believe the allegations.

Despite all this, Hastings persevered and retained the respect of his colleagues.

“South Florida and the country have lost a powerful voice for justice and equality in America,’ said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. 

“As a pioneering civil rights activist throughout his career, Congressman Hastings fought for a version of our nation that lived up to its promise and for a government that recognized the needs of everyone,” Menendez continued. “He was never a man to fear anything, and during the last two years he never stopped fighting for his constituents and all Americans – even as he faced his toughest battle. Today, as we mourn the passing of our good friend, may we find solace in his courage and may his memory inspire us during the battles ahead.”

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my friend Rep. Alcee Hastings,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said. “He was a man of kindness and decency who lived a life of service and contribution. 

“As a member of Congress, he represented communities in South Florida faithfully and with great ability. He was deeply proud of his service in the Congress, and he will be remembered as an expert legislator, as a trusted colleague, as a leader, and as a patriot,” Hoyer added.

He also recalled serving with Hastings on the Commission on Security and Cooperation, whose major objective, in concert with 57 member states, was to promote democracy and human rights in the nations and successor-states that signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. 

“Not only was Alcee the first African-American chairman of the U.S. Commission, he also was accorded the honor of being elected president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly, composed of legislators from all 57 nations,” Hoyer said. “In that position, he played an important role in strengthening our relations with many nations of the world, including those outside the OSCE. His was a powerful voice for equal justice, free expression, and parliamentary democracy in nations that had yearned for these for so long but had been denied them for generations.”

Hasting’s death, in the near term, means the Democrats’ majority in the House is now just 218-211, making it ever-more imperative that the caucus stay unified to pass legislation.

However, it is highly unlikely that the seat will flip when Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, a Republican, calls for a special election as required under state law.

Hastings’ district has been overwhelmingly Democratic for as far back as anyone can remember; that was evident this past November when he received over 80% of the vote.

There are now six vacancies in the House – four being seats that were held by Democrats, two by Republicans.

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