J. Seaborn Holt (1884–1963)

James Seaborn Holt was a lawyer who spent fifty years in private and government practice, the final twenty-three as a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He was a member of a prominent family from Boone County that provided three generations of leaders of the Arkansas bar, including three Supreme Court justices and three attorneys general.

J. Seaborn Holt, as he was known, was born on November 17, 1884, in Bellefonte (Boone County), a tiny community southeast of Harrison (Boone County), to Joseph Rutherford Holt and Paralee Elizabeth Coffman Holt. His father was a farmer who grew corn, wheat, and oats, and raised cattle. He thought banking would be a good career for the boy and got him a job as an assistant bookkeeper at a Harrison bank, but Holt did not like the mathematics and said it was not a career for him. The family eventually moved to Fayetteville (Washington County) before Holt finished school, and he enrolled at the University of Arkansas. While he was in college, he got a job selling tailor-made clothing for a Chicago tailoring house, including a suit for Charles Hillman Brough, a professor at UA and the future governor.

Holt received a BA in 1907, followed by a law degree at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and began practicing law in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) in 1911. He married Lucile Miles on September 14, 1909.

For twenty-seven years, Holt practiced civil and criminal law in Sebastian County and served as an assistant U.S. attorney and also as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas in 1920 and 1921. In 1938, he was elected justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, succeeding Justice Turner Butler, an environmentalist who died suddenly in midterm of a liver disease. In the Democratic Party primary, Holt defeated J. Marion Futrell, a former circuit judge and governor. Holt was reelected three more times—in 1944, 1952, and 1960—but retired soon after his reelection to the final term, on September 4, 1961.

Seaborn was fastidious and ascetic. In her collection of essays about prominent figures—Arkansans of the Years (1951)—Fay Williams described him this way: “He is not a man with an appreciable amount of levity….He has never been contaminated by the ordinary vices. He neither smokes, drinks, nor chews. No one can be found who ever heard him tell an off-color joke.”

Holt never missed a day in court in the twenty-three years he was on the court. He was succeeded by his cousin, J. Frank Holt, who was elected in 1962 to complete his term. Frank Holt resigned to run for governor, unsuccessfully, in 1966 but was elected to the court again in 1968. A nephew, Jack Holt Jr., was elected chief justice in 1984. Another cousin, Jack Holt Sr., was attorney general from 1937 through 1943 and ran for governor twice and the U.S. Senate once. Jack Holt’s son also was attorney general before he was elected chief justice.

Justice Holt wrote opinions for the Supreme Court in several of the most contentious racial and cultural matters that came before the court in the 1940s and 1950s.

He wrote the majority opinion in Johnson v. State in 1942, which upheld the conviction of a Searcy County farmer for flag desecration. Joe Johnson had gone to the county welfare office to get commodities for his large family and was told he had to salute the flag because he was suspected of being a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect, which considered saluting and the pledge of allegiance to be worship of a graven image, prohibited by the Bible. Johnson gave a short speech about his religious beliefs and his hand brushed the flag, which resulted in his arrest for violating a 1919 Arkansas law making it unlawful to “desecrate” the flag. In upholding Johnson’s conviction, Holt’s majority opinion cited a 1940 precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court, which said members of the sect could be held criminally liable for dishonoring the flag, which represented national unity. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the holding a year after the Arkansas case was decided and held that such punishment violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment protections of the religious group.

His role in one of the major legal controversies of the civil rights era was the reverse of Johnson v. State. The Arkansas legislature in February 1957 passed a number of bills aimed at integrationist groups written by the new attorney general, Bruce Bennett. One of the acts authorized local governments to adopt ordinances punishing nonprofit groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which Bennett argued were actually profit-making groups that were avoiding taxes on the income from memberships. (Actually, the law required them to obtain occupational licenses as well as pay license fees and taxes on their incomes.) Little Rock (Pulaski County) and North Little Rock (Pulaski County) promptly adopted ordinances requiring such organizations, notably the NAACP, to provide detailed information on their officers and members along with detailed financial statements. Representatives of the groups had to submit the reports, and they would be fined for every day they violated it. Daisy Bates, the state president of the NAACP, omitted information, including a list of the members and their addresses, sought by the cities, and so did Birdie Williams, the president of the North Little Rock chapter. They were arrested and fined $25 a day until they complied. The Arkansas Supreme Court voted 5–2 to uphold the constitutionality of the ordinance and the two women’s convictions. Justice Ed F. McFaddin wrote the majority opinion.

Justice Holt, who was joined by Justice George Rose Smith, demurred. Holt’s view that requiring a nonprofit organization to divulge its membership to the government stifled the right of free association guaranteed by the First Amendment and also the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously in 1959.

In 1944, Holt received a citation as a distinguished alumnus of the University of Arkansas.

Holt died on May 13, 1963. His remains are in Roselawn Memorial Park in Little Rock.

For additional information:
Daisy Bates et al. v. City of Little Rock, 361 U.S. 516, U.S. Supreme Court, (1960).

Johnson v. State, 163 S.W.2d 153, Arkansas Supreme Court, 1942.

“Judge J. S. Holt Dies in Car Wreck.” Arkansas Gazette, May 14, 1963, p. 1B.

Williams, Fay. Arkansans of the Years. Little Rock: C. C. Allard & Associates, 1951.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 08/20/2021

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