Legal Matters

Finley could be first African American on Western District bench

by Leslie Turk

U.S. District Judge Richard Haik's decision to retire under a Democratic president paved the way for a Dem to replace him, but confirmation could be a long way off.

U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley
Photo by Robin May

Stephanie Finley, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, has been nominated by President Barack Obama to replace U.S. District Judge Richard Haik. Haik assumed senior status, a form of voluntary semi-retirement for federal judges and some state court systems, in March 2015 and retired from active service in January.

Federal judges are appointed for life.

Haik's decision to step down under a Democratic president paved the way for a Dem to replace him. Should she make it through the nominating process, Finley would be the first African American to serve as a federal judge in the state's Western District.

In his 2014 letter to the president announcing his decision to assume senior status, Haik, a Republican, made clear he hoped the president would consider appointing an African American: "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."

Haik made two recommendations among what he called "numerous qualified candidates ... and many outstanding state judges and attorneys throughout Acadiana." Though he did not mention anyone by name, he suggested the current U.S. attorney, who obviously is Finley, as well as a former U.S. attorney. It's unclear whether he meant Donald Washington, an African-American who is a Republican, or Mike Skinner, a Democrat.

As is customary in the nominating process, Finley was recommended to the president by U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican. The next step in the confirmation of Finley is in the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will review her qualifications and record before holding a hearing and voting on whether to report Finley to the full Senate.

While Finley is widely considered a qualified, experienced and competent choice, making it to the bench is far from certain. Historically the Senate slows lifetime judicial confirmations down significantly during the last year of a presidency, but as Politico pointed out earlier this year, the Republican-controlled Senate may be blocking them entirely until a new president takes office.

Finley has served as U.S. attorney since 2010. Before that she was an assistant U.S. attorney in that office from 1995 to 2010, having served as senior litigation counsel from 2007 to 2010 and acting deputy criminal chief from 2008 to 2009.

Finley also has served as an assistant staff judge advocate for the U.S. Air Force Reserves since 1995. She began her legal career serving on active duty as an assistant staff judge advocate for the Air Force from 1991 to 1995.

Finley received her J.D. cum laude from Southern University Law Center in 1991 and her B.S. magna cum laude from Grambling State University in 1988.