Judge Harlin DeWayne “Cooter” Hale was at a doctor’s appointment with his wife when he got a phone call from the director of the American Bankruptcy Institute notifying him he would be the recipient of the 2019 Judge William L. Norton, Jr. Judicial Excellence Award.
“I told my wife, ‘I hope this doesn’t mean they think I’m not going to make it,’” jokes Hale, a 1982 LSU Law graduate who has been a judge at the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas since 2002.
“It’s not something I ever expected to receive,” Hale continues. “In years past, this award has gone to judges whom I consider to be intergalactic bankruptcy judges who handle giant cases and are nationally known. So I was very, very touched to be named alongside them.”
The Norton Judicial Excellence Award is annually presented to a distinguished bankruptcy judge whose career has embodied the same dedication to the insolvency community as did that of the award’s namesake, the late bankruptcy judge and noted author William L. Norton Jr.
“He was an institution in practice of bankruptcy law,” Hale says of Norton Jr., whom he knew personally. “He was a really big believer and advocate for legal education and seminars, and he put out a treatise on bankruptcy law and practice that is still widely used today.”
Though he has issued over 160 opinions during his time on the bench and was cited favorably by the U.S. Supreme Court in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., 137 S.Ct. 973 (2017), Hale says he’s “always considered myself more of a blue collar bankruptcy judge.” He has also been active in many professional organizations, including serving as chair of the bankruptcy sections of both the Texas Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association.
“Judge Hale is usually the first judge in the building every day. Always there. Always available for emergencies. Always available for a chat and words of encouragement,” said Judge Stacey G. C. Jernigan—who sits alongside Hale on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas—when announcing Hale as this year’s award recipient on Nov. 1 at the 2019 National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges in Washington, D.C. “He brings roses from his garden to the staff … in addition to occasional homemade ice cream and Louisiana jambalaya.”
Though he was unable to attend the ceremony due to illness, Hale delivered videotaped remarks, in which he recalled one case that he feels typifies what bankruptcy judges do daily in large and small cases. It wasn’t one of the complex corporate cases he’s handled, but a personal bankruptcy case of a man named Willie Williams, who was more than 80-years-old.
“It was his second case, as his first one was dismissed for missed payments,” Hale recalled. “In his motion to extend the stay, Mr. Williams testified that during his first case his wife died and he soon after had a stroke and could not physically send in his payments. Now his daughter was living with him and would see after him and that his payments were timely made. He said he needed a second chance. I told him he was in the right room.”
Unlike some other courts, bankruptcy courts “are a unique place where people and businesses can actually get a second chance. I think that’s what I like about my job the most,” says Hale, who is now recovering and is expecting to return to the bench before the Thanksgiving holiday.
A native of St. Joseph, Louisiana, Hale earned his undergraduate degree from LSU in 1979. After earning his law degree, he served as law clerk to the Honorable James L. Dennis, Associate Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, now a judge on the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The experience changed his life.
“I wouldn’t be sitting in my chair today except for the year I spent clerking with Judge Dennis,” he says. “He was an extremely hard working and demanding judge, and it taught me a lot about the focus and discipline it takes to be a judge.”
From 1983 to 2002, Hale was in private practice in Dallas, Texas. Since being appointed to serve on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas, Hale has had about 15 LSU Law students clerk for him.
“I’ve never been disappointed with the students from LSU Law,” he says. “Whenever a summer law clerk comes in, some of the judges always joking say to them, ‘you must be the one from LSU,’ because they know I usually have at least one.”
Reflecting on his time at LSU Law, Hale—whose father was a cotton farmer and mother a nurse—says he was determined to succeed at an institution that had a reputation for being easy to get into but was very difficult to graduate from.
“I was a small town boy that was given a chance to succeed and I took that very seriously,” he says. “Thankfully, I had a lot of encouragement there, and one of the things that was really helpful to me was working for Professor George Pugh. Over the years, I became more than an employee and student of his but a friend, and our friendship has now been going on 50 years.”
As this year’s recipient of the Judge William L. Norton, Jr. Judicial Excellence Award, Hale received a commemorative plaque and a $5,000 donation was made in his name to the ABI Endowment for Education to foster bankruptcy education and research.
Hale was inducted into the LSU Law Hall of Fame in 1987, and in 2013 he was the recipient of both the Dallas Bar Association’s Outstanding Mentor Award and the State Bar of Texas’ Outstanding Mentor Award.