Judge Haik assuming senior status in March

by Leslie Turk

The timing of U.S. District Judge Richard Haik's semi-retirement paves the way for a Dem, and perhaps the first African American, to serve the Western District.

His impending retirement has been discussed in legal circles for the past couple of years, and on June 14 U.S. District Judge Richard Haik made it official, notifying President Barack Obama in writing that he would assume senior status March 6 - five days after he turns 65.

Federal judges are appointed for life, and Haik has been serving - with distinction, it should be noted - for almost 24 years. He was nominated in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush to the seat vacated by John Duhe when Duhe was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans; Haik served as chief judge of the district court from 2002 until June 2009. The federal judgeship marked the second time Haik had assumed a seat vacated by Duhe: In 1984 Haik was elected state district judge for the 16th Judicial District in New Iberia after Duhe was appointed to the federal judgeship. In all, Haik has been a judge for 31 years.

By taking senior status with a Democrat as president, Haik's timing paves the way for a Democratic appointee to the bench because his seat will be considered vacated. In his letter to the president, Haik, a Republican, makes it clear he hopes the president considers appointing an African American to the Western District, which would be a first: "In my humble opinion, the time has come to appoint one of the many extremely qualified African Americans to serve his or her country as a federal district judge."

And he makes two recommendations among what he calls "numerous qualified candidates ... and many outstanding state judges and attorneys throughout Acadiana." Though he does not name them, he suggests the current U.S. attorney (Stephanie Finley, a Democrat) as well as a former U.S. attorney. It's unclear whether he means Donald Washington, an African-American who is a Republican, or Mike Skinner, a Democrat.

U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter will make recommendations to the president, and the Senate will have to confirm the nominee.

"I'm taking [senior status] because I've been here going on 24 years now," Haik says. "I think it's time for somebody else to take over and get some fresh blood in to do some things that should be done."

Senior status is a form of voluntary semi-retirement for federal judges and some state court systems. To qualify, a judge must be at least 65 and have served for at least 15 years, Haik says, with one fewer year of service required for each additional year of age. In terms of salary, there is no difference in full retirement and senior status, as Haik will receive his full annual salary, approximately $200,000, and will have the option of reducing his case load. He says that's not likely to happen, at least not any time soon.

"It's like a semi-retirement, but it's really not," says Haik, who grew up in New Iberia and played football at UL Lafayette. "I'm going to have to work just like I'm doing now until I actually fully retire or until we get another judge here." There is no timetable for naming a replacement and the time frame can vary greatly, Haik says, noting that Duhe's position on the bench was vacant for about 2.5 years before he was appointed. "The cases can just sit, except the criminal stuff. I had 980-something cases when I came on board in 1991 because the position had been open for so long. It can get away from you very, very quickly," he says.

It's hard to say Judge Haik's name and not recall the 1992 Marine Shale case, in which the hazardous waste processing company's owner, Jack Kent, and two other men attempted to bribe the judge. At the time, Haik was hearing the lawsuit between Marine Shale and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and was cooperating with authorities investigating the attempted bribery. Haik was offered $2 million and received $30,000 as a down payment. "No doubt that I was going to do the right thing, but I was proud of the fact that I was able to help, and stay in and make like I was going to take money," Haik says. "People went to jail because of that."

His service overseeing the almost 4-decades-old desegregation case involving the Lafayette Parish School System will forever be part of his legacy. "It was a difficult case for everybody," Haik says, "including myself." Haik took over the case in 2000 and granted the system unitary status six years later.

In his 24 years on the federal bench, Haik has had little sympathy for criminals - especially sexual predators. In October 2011, he sent former Acadiana High teacher Stephen Hurst, then 38, to prison for 27 years for letting students use his Lafayette apartment to have sex, which he sometimes filmed, between 2005 and 2010. Hurst faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years behind bars.

That sentencing followed two widely publicized cases over which Haik presided involving authority figures at high schools and the students who were placed in their care: former Ascension Episcopal School counselor Allison Hargrave, whom Haik sentenced to 30 years after Hargrave admitted to having sex with a troubled, 14-year-old female student who sought Hargrave's counsel; and Larry Caillier II, a former Opelousas High teacher sentenced to 14 years for his illicit "sexting" relationship with a 15-year-old girl.

The job has been challenging and rewarding, Haik says. "There are a lot of difficult things that have gone on over the years; it's hard to pinpoint. Good lawyers trying good cases are a lot of fun. I enjoyed that. Bad cases with bad lawyers are no fun at all. Every judge will tell you the worst thing that could happen is bad lawyers with bad cases. That is no fun at all, but it's part of the process."

Haik says he has committed to stay at least six months after his senior status goes into effect. Beyond that, he's undecided. "I can do it part-time, I can do full-time, I can do what I want, if I want, when I want. ... or totally retire. Some people stay and some people don't."

[Correction: While he acknowledges that he is widely viewed as a Dem, and was erroneously identified as one in this story, U.S. District Judge Richard Haik is a registered Republican. "Although few believe this, I am and have been a Republican since 1985," Haik tells The IND.]