Jack Wilson Holt Jr. (1929–2023)

Jack Wilson Holt Jr. was chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court for ten years, and his landmark lawsuit against the Arkansas penitentiary caused the entire Arkansas prison system to be declared unconstitutional in 1970, triggering judicially inspired prison reforms in many states.

Jack Holt Jr. was born Samuel Wilson Holt on May 18, 1929, in Harrison (Boone County) to Jack Wilson Holt Sr. and Margaret Spikes Holt; he had a younger sister. He insisted that his parents change his name to Jack because children teased him that he had a girl’s name, Sammie. In 1928, his father was elected prosecuting attorney and, in 1934, circuit judge for the Fourteenth Circuit. His father was elected attorney general in 1936, and the family moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County).

At an early age, Holt began following his father on summer political campaigns. The elder Holt, a fiery stump speaker, was elected attorney general four times and led a field of candidates for the U.S. Senate in 1942. He was defeated in the Democratic runoff primary by John L. McClellan, one of the three congressmen who ran for the seat. The senior Holt ran for governor in 1948 and 1952, and many years later was elected municipal judge in Little Rock. The elder Holt’s brother J. Frank Holt and a cousin, James Seaborn Holt, were elected justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The younger Holt received a law degree at the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1952. He served three years in the U.S. Air Force and, in 1979, concluded a career as an air force reservist with the rank of colonel. He returned from active duty as his uncle Frank was elected prosecuting attorney for the Sixth Judicial District. He was a deputy prosecutor and followed his uncle to the attorney general’s office after the election of 1960. He was chief assistant attorney general, and when his uncle resigned in December 1962 to be sworn in as justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Holt was appointed attorney general to finish his uncle’s term. He married Diane Kelley of Benton (Saline County), and they had two children. They later divorced.

Holt joined a Little Rock law firm in 1963 and developed a reputation as one of the top criminal defense lawyers in the state. He successfully defended people accused of murder in two highly publicized cases—Susan McMillian, who was accused of poisoning her doctor husband, and William McArthur, a prominent Little Rock defense lawyer who was arrested by Sheriff Tommy Robinson in 1983 for the murder of McArthur’s wife. A grand jury declined to indict McArthur, and three others, including Mary Lee Orsini, eventually were convicted of first-degree murder in his wife’s death. The case was the subject of national attention.

In 1966, while helping run his uncle’s campaign for governor, Holt befriended young William Jefferson Clinton, who was a driver for the candidate. At the end of the campaign, Clinton wanted a job in Washington DC while he was attending college, and Holt arranged for U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright to hire him as an intern, which began the political career that culminated in Clinton’s election as president in 1992.

In 1969, Holt and Phillip Kaplan, a Little Rock civil rights lawyer, received telephone calls from U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley, a Holt family friend from Boone County, asking them to investigate prison conditions and to represent inmates at the state penitentiary who were filing petitions asking the court for relief from prison conditions. Earlier, Henley had appointed two other Little Rock attorneys, Steele Hays (later a colleague of Holt on the state Supreme Court) and Jerry D. Jackson, to represent inmates who had filed three petitions complaining about prison conditions. Hays and Jackson’s consolidated suit, Holt v. Sarver, produced an order declaring that the crowded conditions at the prison units constituted cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. (The Holt in the suit’s name was an inmate and had no familial relationship to lawyer Holt.)

The second group of petitioners represented by Holt and Kaplan (the case became known as Holt v. Sarver II) enlarged the array of alleged abuses in the penitentiary: grueling forced labor, torture, unsanitary conditions, crowding, racial discrimination, lack of protection from assaults and other crimes by fellow inmates, and lack of simple amenities of daily life such as toilet articles and clothing. At the end of the trial, Henley declared the system unconstitutional. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Henley’s decision in 1971, and the prisons remained under federal court supervision for more than a decade. In 1978, elements of the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed Henley’s findings. Similar suits attacking conditions in the prisons followed, producing widespread reforms in other southern states, including Texas.

In 1984, Holt ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination for chief justice after Chief Justice Richard B. Adkisson retired suddenly. His opponent was James D. “Justice Jim” Johnson, a firebrand segregationist who had quit the Supreme Court in 1966 to run for governor. (Johnson had defeated Frank Holt, who served on the Supreme Court with him, for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination but was defeated by Winthrop Rockefeller in the general election.) Johnson switched to the Republican Party to make the 1984 judicial race—judges still ran by party at that time—and invoked race issues. He accused Holt of getting $100,000 in campaign gifts from the state’s largest utility and received the endorsement of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who headed the conservative Moral Majority movement. Despite Johnson’s appearance on stage with President Ronald Reagan in Little Rock three days before the election, Holt won easily with fifty-nine percent of the vote.

Holt transformed the Judicial Department into the Administrative Office of the Courts, providing education and other support services to all state and municipal courts. Later, he initiated and campaigned for three amendments to the state constitution, which increased the civil jurisdiction of municipal courts to give litigants easy access to court to resolve small monetary claims, created a system of juvenile courts and took juvenile matters away from county judges, and created a system for disciplining or removing judges for ethical misbehavior and replacing judges who become physically or mentally disabled.

Holt retired from the Arkansas Supreme Court on January 1, 1995. After leaving the court, he campaigned for a successful constitutional amendment in 2000 that reformed and reorganized the Arkansas judicial system, including a requirement that elections to all the trial and appellate courts be nonpartisan. He lived with his wife, Jane Holt, on a farm off state Highway 10 west of Little Rock.

Holt died on March 5, 2023.

For additional information:
Brazzel, Kyle. “Jack Holt Jr.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 9, 2002, pp. 1D, 10D.

Holt v. Sarver II: Holt v. Sarver, 309 F. Supp 362 (1970), aff’d. 442 F.2d 304 (8th Cir. 1974).

Moss, Teresa. “Holt, 93, Ex-Chief Justice in State, Dies.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 7, 2023, pp. 1B, 2B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/07/former-state-supreme-court-chief-justice-jack/ (accessed March 7, 2023).

Spiller, D. P. After Decision: Implementation of Judicial Decrees in Correctional Settings: A Case Study of Holt v. Sarver. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 1976.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


    I was Jack Holt’s administrative assistant for twenty years until he retired from the Arkansas Supreme Court.

    Haley Yaniger