Formative years at MSU sparked Judge David Holton’s successful career on the bench

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David Holton c. 1983
David Holton c. 1983

Recently retired Judge David Holton (84) didn’t need perfect vision to see his potential for success in the field of law. In fact, since Holton lost his eyesight at age 10 due to a brain tumor near his optic nerve, he didn’t need to see at all.  

What Holton believes helped him to see that potential more than anything was being in the right place at the right time around the right people. 

The place was Morehead State University. Holton’s parents dropped him off as a freshman at Alumni Tower with his trusty guide dog Simon in tow. 

“It was up to us to make it or break it,” he recalls. 

The time was during his four years as an undergraduate student. Within two weeks on campus, he was elected as a freshman senator in student government. He had a strong interest in public policy and found several avenues for it at MSU, whether he was collaborating statewide with other members of student government organizations, delivering keynote addresses or even leading marches for increased higher education funding and meeting with then-Governor Wallace Wilkinson. 

“My dog and I led the damn march,” he said. 

The people were members of the MSU Board of Regents. Holton already had an interest in attending law school and when he was elected student body president as a senior during the 1983-84 academic year, he was able to serve as the student representative on the board alongside the types of people he one day hoped to become. 

“Not many 21-year-olds get the opportunity to sit on the board of a university and observe the administration of a public institution of higher learning,” Holton, 59, recalled. “I was serving with very successful businessmen, with a respected judge on the board and other professionals to guide and lead the University. We even hired the new president of the University (Dr. Herb. F. Reinhard Jr.). That was a real crucial year in my development.” 

Holton would later go on to earn his Juris Doctor from the University of Kentucky College of Law and return to home to Louisville to open a private practice and serve in the courtrooms of Jefferson County for 28 years. First, he was a prosecutor for the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office and after 19 years of practicing law, he was appointed by Governor Steve Beshear to serve as the Jefferson District Court Judge in April 2008, getting re-elected without opposition in both 2010 and 2014. During his time on the bench, he was the state of Kentucky’s first blind judge. 

“Still the only one, by golly!” Holton said jokingly with a hint of pride. “I tell folks I had to do my job right so I wouldn’t be the last blind judge in Kentucky.” 

Through his schooling and his career, Holton’s disability only helped to instill in him a work ethic that served him well and allowed him to use his position on the bench to serve those less fortunate and apply the law with equal parts fairness and compassion.  

In 2012, Holton founded the Veteran’s Treatment Courts to provide mental health services to veterans and keep them accountable during their occasionally troublesome transition to civilian life. In November 2016, Holton became a judge in the juvenile court. He can still recall the sound of children being escorted to his courtroom in handcuffs and shackles, often for low-level offenses. It ultimately led to Holton putting a stop to the practice except in the most special cases to account for public safety. 

“It didn’t sound right,” Holton said of the literal sound of the shackles on juvenile offenders. “I had 12, 13, 14, 15-year-old kids in there and at times, the chains were probably heavier than they were. To me, the keep them shackled and chained in their minds was just going to perpetuate their image of someone charged with a crime. I wanted to show them I had more respect for them than that.” 

Holton said there was a time early on in his career when his blindness proved to be a detriment. “It’s not been a bowl of cherries, brother,” he said. However, when Holton served on the bench, his inability to see only helped him become a better listener when he takes in the information of a case. 

“In terms of the judicial position, I think it was a positive because I wasn’t prejudice of appearances or what someone was wearing or mannerisms,” he said. “I based what I did on the law and what was in the record. To me, it was an advantage because I wasn’t distracted by outside factors.” 

Holton retired as the Jefferson County District Judge in September 2017 and was named Judge of the Year by the Louisville Bar Association that same year. While he said the last few years have been less stressful (he’s had more time to play his guitar, fish, travel or go to his lake house), they haven’t been lacking in activity. 

Holton has returned to his private practice. At the time of this interview, he had four cases in court the previous day and three lined up for the next day.  

“I’m anything but retired. You should see the stack of files we have,” he said. 

Holton said he missed the special bond that comes from the attorney/client relationship and the feeling he gets of helping a client work through a problem. He said whether it’s his Christian faith or having to overcome extraordinary circumstances in his own life, he has always felt an obligation to serve others. 

“For some reason, God blessed me with some abilities and talents, and I want to use it to give back with other people,” he said. 

Holton said he will continue his private practice and may venture into advocacy or running again for public office (he ran and lost in primaries running for state legislature positions in 1996 and 2000). For now, Holton walks the steps to and from the courthouse with his seeing-eye dog Rocky guiding his steps, adorned with his standard service-dog vest and a Morehead State leash. It seems fitting, since Holton’s love for his alma mater is due to an experience that seemed to truly guide him to where he is today. 

“I have a wonderful connection to it because of these wonderful things that happened to me when I was there,” Holton said. “It formed who I am. I felt like I got a million-dollar education from Morehead State and it wasn’t just in the classroom, it was in life. I got an advanced degree in life from Morehead State.” 

To learn more about MSU’s legal studies program, contact the Department of History, Philosophy, Politics, Global Studies and Legal Studies at hpil@moreheadstate.edu, 606-783-2655 or visit www.moreheadstate.edu/study/legalstudies