“This is crazy,” he said to himself on the way from his New Jersey home to an extortion ring bust. “I’ve got to slow down.”
Forty years later, he’s finally getting around to it.
Judge David Winston Houston III looks across the dignified foyer of the Thad Cochran U.S. Bankruptcy Courthouse in Aberdeen with a satisfied expression.
The massive structure, with its high-tech accouterments, is a testament to the wisdom of his judicial appointment in 1983.
Before that, he was a new generation lawyer with his father’s Aberdeen firm, where Houstons had advocated since 1843.
He’d been busy as the city’s attorney, as its municipal judge and enjoyed the life of a rising, hometown man.
But that year, his father died and Judge L.T. Senter Jr., chief of the U.S. District Court in North Mississippi, called to ask if he’d accept the appointment to the bankruptcy court.
“I was a real newbie,” he recalls from his well appointed second-floor office off old Highway 45. “I had done just a little bankruptcy work back then.”
But, he accepted the challenge from the man he terms his mentor and his judicial model.
“It’s really terrifying, that you don’t know what you’re doing, that first time on the bench,” he admits.
Dec. 18, friends, family and associates will gather at the cream-colored stone courthouse to honor Houston on his impending retirement.
He’ll clean out his desk and head for life on his own schedule by mid-January.
Michael P. Mills, now the district court’s chief judge, praises his longtime friend and colleague as “a man of the highest integrity.”
Mills says incoming successor, Jason Woodard of Birmingham, Ala., has giant’s shoes to fill.
Woodard comes from an extensive bankruptcy practice, though, Houston notes, which will make it easier for him to don the long black robe.
“David Houston was the first and only bankruptcy judge in the Northern District of Mississippi,” Mills notes.
“In that, I mean, he had to create a legal culture for practice and procedure, which is established now and into the future,” Mills said.
Houston explains is this way: Back in the day, attorneys practiced a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Few, if any, specialized, especially in bankruptcy.
That all changed with the country’s economic ups and downs.
Bankruptcy court rules have undergone at least two major revamps since Houston came to the bench, and he said the field has become a major one for people in financial distress and the lawyers who represent them.
“Credit is so easy,” he reflects about how the bankruptcy field has grown. “It’s so easy for people to over-leverage themselves. It can all come crashing down on you.”
DeSoto County south of Memphis provides fertile ground for bankruptcy cases in Houston’s jurisdiction, because of recent real estate bubbles and, perhaps, proximity to casinos.
“We see a lot of car payments that went into slot machines,” he says.
Houston got his judicial creds soon after his appointment, helping fellow Texas judges deal with more than 30,000 bankruptcy cases arising from Houston’s real estate boom and bust of the 1980s.
Across several years, he gained valuable experience with a grueling schedule working through hundreds of the cases there. Then, he’d come back home and deal with North Mississippi’s court business.
Through that experience, he met Judge Carolyn King, who became chief judge of the circuit. They built a professional relationship and personal friendship that paid off years later when she helped engineer approval for the new Aberdeen bankruptcy courthouse.
Houston talked animatedly about the modernity and good work environment in the facility, which opened in August 2005, just a few light breezes before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast region.
“The architects did their homework and looked around Aberdeen for some ideas to shape the building’s character,” he said, citing the facade of First Baptist Church as one model.
Houston says he appreciates the order of the building as he works to wrap up a yearly load of more than 2,000 cases, which he insists entitles the region to an additional judge. But that takes an act of Congress, he shakes his head as he explains.
On this day, the judge and his wife, Debbie, were greeted warmly as they were shown to a table for lunch in a local eatery.
“I guess I’m going to have to start a to-do list,” Debbie Houston said with a laugh.
They talked excitedly about the Dec. 18 unveiling of the judge’s official portrait, painted by renowned portrait artist Jason Bouldin of Oxford.
It will be a time for the 25-year couple to gather family, too – three adult daughters and a son.
Looking toward retirement, Houston says he hopes just to enjoy life on his own schedule and read books for pleasure, which he hasn’t been able to do in years.
“It’s time,” observes the 1969 University of Mississippi law graduate. “It’s been a lot of hard work, and there’s still much to do before I leave.”
Houston says he thinks about perhaps a little pay-back with law school teaching or taking on a little private legal work “of counsel” with a firm.
Looking at the autographed baseballs on his polished top desk, he says he and former magistrate friend Jerry Davis of Tupelo may take in some ball games.
His most immediate goal, though, is an MRI on one knee, a casualty of years ago high school football.
“I’m likely to be a good candidate for a replacement,” he said with conviction.
That observation stands true for David Houston’s career, too.