The Honorable Jack Wilson Holt Jr. May 18, 1929 – March 5, 2023
March 13-19, 2023
By Jay Edwards
A few years back we ran a series of articles about, and by, Judge Jack Holt Jr., who passed away on March 5th, where he reminisced about his career spent in the legal profession in Arkansas. We are pleased to share them again over the next few weeks and, like so many Arkansans, we mourn our friend’s passing.
About five years ago I was trying to sell my house in Foxcroft when I got a call one afternoon from an interested party. The voice on the other end of the line identified himself as Jack Holt.
When I asked if he was “the” Jack Holt, I heard the friendly voice say through a slightly embarrassed laugh, “Well I guess I’m one of them.”
Of course, if you live in Arkansas, there is only one Jack Holt Jr., the former trial lawyer and public defender from Harrison who rose to become the Chief Justice of the State’s Supreme Court in 1985. He retired in 1995 and was recently honored in Fayetteville for 50 years service to the state’s legal profession.
Last month, Daily Record Publisher Bill Rector was at the Little Rock Athletic Club when he ran into the Judge. After an exchange of pleasantries, Rector was soon being entertained by Holt’s wit and memory as he recounted war stories from days gone by.
It happened again at their next workout session, and Rector was so caught up that he thought we ought to try and pass some of Holt’s experiences along to our faithful readers.
The clincher for this coming together was when Holt saw the photo of his good friend Judge Bill Wilson on the front page of a recent issue. He quickly let me know he had a good story about his friend that he wouldn’t mind sharing.
“In the early days of our careers as lawyers, even though we were at different firms, Bill and I would sometimes lean on each other,” Holt said, “particularly in our criminal practices.”
One of those times, Holt remembered, was when he had been retained by a mechanic who worked for the Pulaski County School District.
“The man contacted me after he had been arrested for abruptly ending what had been an ongoing altercation with his stepson,” Holt said.
“That last incident began when the stepson stole a bunch of beer out of my client’s truck, which he didn’t take to kindly to, because he was planning a weekend fishing trip.”
“Anyway, my client had this carpet knife that he would use to trim wire and what not, and when he found out about the stolen beer, he confronted his stepson. It ended badly, with my client using the knife on his stepson’s throat – killed him.”
After being charged with murder the man wanted to hire Holt for representation, but being of “poor circumstance,” he didn’t have any money to pay a lawyer for his services.
“In those days bartering wasn’t that uncommon,” Holt said, “especially in criminal cases. And we didn’t have public defenders. The way it worked was a judge called you up and said, ‘Here’s your case.’”
“Well, the man wanted to pay me something but he said that the only thing he really had of any value was his bass boat,” Holt said.
“He said it was a pretty good old boat, that it ran good, but that it needed a new windshield.”
Holt told his client that he didn’t have a boat right then, and that he would take the case.”
“My friend Jerry McKinnis had just moved out to Maumelle, and I knew that I could dock the boat with him.”
But several weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin the son of one of Holt’s good friends was killed in a car wreck, making it almost impossible for him to concentrate on the task at hand. So, he called on his friend Bill Wilson to step in for him, subject to the client’s approval. Wilson agreed to take the case and they went to trial.
“Well Bill did quite well,” Holt said, “and got the conviction down to manslaughter and a seven-year sentence. I was really proud of him and called him up to tell him so and to thank him. I told him that we had to get together and figure out a deal on the bass boat. I had put a new windshield on it and told Bill that I thought a 50-50 split seemed about right. Bill said that would be fine. Then he said that David Pryor had just moved to town and wanted to go fish Maumelle, and would it be all right to let him have the boat.”
“I said, sure.”
“Well Pryor gets the boat and gets out to the middle of the lake and it quits on him. Bill calls me, somewhat agitated, and says ‘What kind of boat are we stuck with here?’ I told him not to worry, that I had a man at Lake City Marina who would take care of it for us.”
Three or four days later, after the boat’s original owner had been taken off to the penitentiary to begin his seven-year stretch, one of his kinsmen made a call on Holt.
“The man walked in and handed me what looked like a payment book,” Holt said. I asked him what it was and he said that it was what was left of the payoff on the boat.”
“I said, ‘Are you serious?’ The man said he was.”
“So, I called up Wilson and I told him that he had done a fine job in the trial, but that he didn’t really get the man off, and so it only seemed right that the payment book belonged to him.”
“But I wasn’t going to be unfair,” Holt said through a grin. “I told him I’d still let him have half of the boat.”
2. Jack and Jane Holt