Houston bows out as judge with portrait unveiling

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

ABERDEEN – “I’m going to miss this job, but I’ll be around,” retiring U.S. bankruptcy judge David W. Houston III told friends and family Tuesday as he wraps up his 30-year career on the bench.
Robed judges, public officials and scores of well-wishers packed into the Thad Cochran Bankruptcy Courthouse on Aberdeen’s outskirts to honor Houston and see his official portrait unveiled.
The life-size portrait, by famed Oxford artist Jason Bouldin, will hang in the well-appointed courtroom Houston presided over since the courthouse which opened in August 2005.
Houston’s successor, Jason Woodard, a Birmingham, Ala., attorney, also was on hand for the send-off.
Woodard starts work in a few weeks but said Tuesday he doesn’t plan a formal investiture until spring.
Meanwhile, it was Houston’s day at the facility he lobbied for over many years. As he spoke and was honored by numerous other speakers, Houston’s wife Debi wiped tears from her cheeks.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael P. Mills presided over the hour-long ceremony and introduced speakers, including Southern District Chief Bankruptcy Judge Ed Ellington, pinch-hitting for U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.
“Welcome to the public hanging of the portrait of a young David Houston,” Mills joked as he opened the retirement ceremonies on the judge’s bench with 5th Circuit members Leslie Southwick and Grady Jolly.
Ellington told the audience his last-minute substitution for Mississippi’s senior senator is akin to going “to the opera for Pavorotti, then out walks Tiny Tim with his ukelele.”
Cochran was forced to stay in Washington, D.C., while negotiations continue to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.
Ellington praised Houston’s leadership and loyalty, and said, “I will never be able to adequately thank him for all the help he has given me. He’s always been there for me.”
Cochran staffer Bill Canty read a letter from the senator, who recognized their long friendship and Houston’s accomplishments across the years.
Longtime friend and colleague 6th Circuit Judge Julia Gibbons told the audience of Houston’s crucial role in helping press for federal judiciary funding in Congress.
“No one is better than David Houston,” she said. “He knows how to stay in touch and he has the right touch. He knows how to communicate the judiciary’s needs. His leadership has been critical for adequate appropriations.”
Houston was a young Aberdeen lawyer in the early 1980s when then-Chief District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. asked if he’d consider becoming the next bankruptcy judge.
Through the years, the Aberdeen native is widely credited with leadership in shaping procedure and law for the country’s new bankruptcy court.
Colleagues from New Jersey to Florida and Tennessee were among those wishing Houston well in his retirement.
But it was Jason Bouldin, son of another famed portrait artist, Marshall Bouldin of Clarksdale, who held the crowd’s attention while he explained what they were to see when the portrait was unveiled – David Houston’s likeness in a way few had seen judges, with his robe worn casually, open with the viewer’s ability to see the man dressed underneath, a happy expression on his face and his presence surrounded by light.
The artist has two paths, Bouldin explained, to show something of the person’s office, and the other to paint something about the individual who “animates” that office.
He described the David Houston in his portrait as “standing in a comfortable but solid position” with a pen and pad in his left hand because the judge “prefers to take notes by hand.”
Houston wears a familiar red and blue tie, denoting his love for the University of Mississippi and its athletic teams, Bouldin noted, drawing a light laugh from the audience.
“There’s a glance of a wedding ring, a suggestion of ties beyond the court,” he continued.
Houston’s face, Bouldin said, holds the center of interest as someone who is “positive, affable, approachable, fair and thoughtful.”
As for the painting’s strong background, the artist said its light matches Houston’s “light shed in the courtroom and the light he brings to the cases before it.”
Wrapping up the ceremony, Houston took the podium to thank everyone involved with his career and Tuesday’s ceremony and reception.
About his portrait, he assessed that his image “looks like I’ve got a secret – I may tell you or I may not.”
He introduced a large group of family in attendance, as well as “his second family,” the court staff and security members.
Reflecting on his career, Houston said it “seems like only a few weeks ago” that Judge Senter asked him to take the bench.
“Your presence today means the world to me,” he said to his colleagues and friends. “You people mean the world to me. I’m going to miss this job, but I’m going to be around. I Look forward to continuing our relationship.”
Weeks ago, Houston said he plans to catch up on reading for pleasure and hopes he can offer some experience to law school classes, among other things.
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com