`Maverick' jurist faces possible impeachment proceedings. Florida's first black federal judge says he welcomes hearing
Miami — Outside the courtroom, federal Judge Alcee Hastings of Miami has never been traditionally judge-like. As one Miami lawyer describes him: ``He's a barnstormer. He's a lambaster. He speaks out on a number of issues that most judges don't even speak on in private.''
On the bench, however, Judge Hastings is fair-minded, courteous, and efficient, local lawyers say.
But since Hastings was acquitted of bribery charges in 1983, he has faced a barrage of criticism from fellow judges.
The final volley came this week when the 27-member Judicial Conference of the United States, the federal bench's top policy council, recommended that the US House of Representatives impeach him.
The first black to become a federal judge in Florida, Hastings would become only the sixth federal judge impeached and removed from office. President Carter appointed him to the bench in 1979.
Ironically, Hastings has looked forward to this week's decision. Hastings, a charismatic and outspoken political liberal, predicted months ago that his fellow judges would recommend impeachment proceedings. He is more optimistic about his chances in Congress.
Hastings plans to mount a full-scale lobbying effort to convince the House Judiciary Committee that because he had been cleared of charges, he should not face a form of double jeopardy by retrial in the US Senate.
Impeaching him, Hastings says, would be impeaching the jury verdict that acquitted him: ``It will be a dark day in this bicentennial year'' of the Constitution.
If the Judiciary Committee recommends impeachment, and the full House votes to impeach, Hastings will be tried in the Senate. Grounds for removal from office, according to the Constitution, are ``treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.''
In 1983 a longtime friend of Hastings, Washington lawyer William Borders, was convicted of soliciting $150,000 from an undercover agent posing as a defendant in exchange for a lighter sentence from Hastings. The judge was acquitted.
Two of the federal judges, however, wrote a complaint that Hastings had lied on the witness stand and fabricated evidence to win acquittal.
A five-judge panel led by a prominent New York lawyer, John Doar, investigated those charges for more than three years, issuing a secret, 381-page report last August. It recommended that the US House consider impeaching Hastings. In September, a 15-judge panel affirmed the report, which has not been made public.
Hastings and his supporters, who dominate the local bar, argue that federal judges should have accepted the verdict as the last word, regardless of their own views.
``I consider him to be an excellent judge,'' says Miami defense attorney Theodore Klein, who has practiced before Hastings. ``But I think he has embarrassed [the federal judiciary] deeply by getting indicted,'' says Mr. Klein, who sits on the board of governors of the Florida Bar Association. ``It's rendered much more acute by the general manner in which Alcee Hastings conducts himself,'' he adds.
Says Pat Seitz, a civil lawyer on the state bar board of governors: ``I think the only way you can properly describe him is as a maverick.'' He once spoke to a bar group, she recalls, denouncing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O`Connor as a ``troglodyte.''
Yet he is a warm and charismatic man, she says, and on the bench he treats people with dignity, does his homework, and keeps his cases moving efficiently. ``I was very shocked when the indictment came down.''
Hastings and his lawyer, Terence Anderson, see a subtle element of racism in the situation. Hastings's reputation for integrity and leadership should cast skepticism over the charges brought against him, says Anderson. But his reputation is known only in the black community, locally and nationally. The Doar committee treated Hastings's career and reputation in a single paragraph, Mr. Anderson notes.
The embattled judge still brings alacrity to the defense of his career. ``I've learned to make it my joy and my pain,'' he says. ``I've learned to thrive on it.'' He pauses. ``I'd better.''