December 9, 2023

politics of law

Politics and Law

Houff sets down gavel after 22 years on the bench

8 min read
Dale Houff
The Honorable William Dale Houff retired from the bench in the 26th Judicial District just after presiding for 22 decades in Normal District Courtroom. A retirement ceremony was held for the duration of a joint session of all a few Site County courts on June 10, 2022.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, June 17 — Above the training course of his 22 years on the bench in Normal District Courtroom, the Honorable William Dale Houff listened to a ton of stories, explanations and excuses to justify the fees from the 1000’s that appeared before him. Just one defendant even blamed his small pet dog for his abnormal pace on the highway.

“He stated that the pet dog got underneath his foot and pressed the gas pedal,” Houff recalled. “Well it was not a extremely large puppy and I doubted that it caused all of the too much speed…but I gave the doggy credit score for 7 mph, which dropped it below reckless driving.”

The ruling proved to be exemplary of Houff’s philosophy toward interpreting the regulation and demonstrating frequent decency toward his fellow person.

“I didn’t see extremely a lot of undesirable people,” the previous district decide claimed of the numerous defendants that have stood just before him. “I observed a good deal of great men and women who did a terrible issue.”

On June 10, a joint session of Webpage County courts recognized Houff’s retirement from the bench as his portrait was hung in the Typical District Court area he presided in excess of considering that his investiture in 2000. A resolution from the Site County Bar Affiliation was read through by Luray attorney Robert Janney.

“Judge Houff possessed the important features to have attained the reputation of staying a extremely highly regarded choose,” Janney study. “Those attributes becoming fairness, proper demeanor, fantastic awareness of the regulation, and regard for individuals showing up in advance of him, together with not only the lawyers but the get-togethers right before the Court docket.”

Houff credits former Virginia delegate and present Page County supervisor Allen Louderback with supporting him develop into a choose all through affirmation in the Basic Assembly. He experienced preferred to have Louderback talk at his investiture 22 several years ago, but the new decide was overly aware at the time of a warning he had received to not be associated in any way publicly with politics. So, to make up for that, Houff asked Louderback to talk at his June 10 retirement ceremony.

Nearly 100 attended the ceremony, such as spouse and children, previous and current colleagues, clerks, attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers and even a handful of pals who attended his investiture 21 many years back. Some of their text caught with him in the course of his tenure on the bench.

“I don’t forget [attorney] George Shanks expressing that the Typical District Courtroom could be the optimum court docket that most men and women at any time get read in since they just cannot afford to pay for to take it additional,” Houff mentioned, noting a distinctive reference to that point in the Bar’s resolution.

“In civil matters coming prior to him, he was ever cognizant of the monetary situation of the litigants showing ahead of him and considered his obligations and rulings as a Courtroom of Past Vacation resort,” the resolution stated.

Virtually all fees placed by the state (apart from immediate indictments) are initiated in Typical District Court docket. Some are directed to Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courtroom thanks to the involvement of minors and domestic scenarios, and others are kicked up to the Circuit Court degree due to the fact of the severity of the crimes — but the bulk of situations that go by means of the judicial method are heard, judged and sentenced in General District Court.

“We could very easily go through 200 conditions in a day…it could be as higher as 300…now, they are mainly targeted visitors offenses and some of them transfer somewhat swiftly. We’re not striving 300 conditions, that would be extremely hard,” Houff claimed. “A quarter prepay, a quarter never clearly show up [to court], a quarter demonstrate up and plead responsible, and the remaining quarter may well want to be read, but it’s usually some thing really straightforward.”

Despite the fact that the law has established to be his life’s function, the former legal professional and judge stated that he was not generally particular that it would be his calling.

“I didn’t know in early ’72,” Houff claimed. “I was a chemistry big at Bridgewater School.”

Developing up in Weyers Cave, 1968 graduate of Fort Defiance Substantial School in Augusta County turned interested in discussion and communications during his time at Bridgewater. Phil Stone, who later turned the president of BWC, persuaded Houff to look at a job in the legislation, and he would commit two summers clerking at Wharton, Aldhizer and Weaver in Harrisonburg. A sturdy overall performance on his LSATs made the final decision final.

“Law served to give me much more solutions,” Houff said, “and it retained me from making a conclusion.”

Just after getting his Bachelor of Arts cum laude from Bridgewater, Houff attained his Juris Doctorate from the College of Virginia in 1975. Through connections in the Harrisonburg legislation office environment exactly where he clerked, Houff went into apply with John M. Swetnam as an associate. Swetnam represented massive clientele in Page County, these as Luray Caverns and Website page Valley Financial institution (now Blue Ridge Financial institution).

“His affiliation with Jack Swetnam introduced him into the Site County Bar less than the wing of a pillar of the legal and economic neighborhood,” the resolution honoring Houff reads. “He could have had no finer mentor than Jack Swetnam, who was regarded as a male of probity, scrupulous treatment, fairness, focus to detail, and light very good humor.”

Swetnam was 62 when Houff joined his organization, which modified its name to Swetnam and Houff in 1978. The organization would retain that title even just after Swetnam’s death in 1992, and Houff would continue to be the only practitioner in the office right up until his election to the bench in the 26th Judicial District in 2000.

“He helped me a ton,” Houff reported of Swetnam, who he credits as getting his best mentor. “He did a lot more company and I did a great deal of real estate, which is strange for district court docket judges who often come from more criminal backgrounds…but I was nicely served by my true estate background. He was a extremely huge and imposing fella…dressed impeccably. He fearful a large amount of people even although he was as great as could be.”

While even now practicing legislation, Houff served as assistant commissioner of accounts in Page County from 1979 by 2000. In that position, he helped settle estates, particularly for Robey G. Janney, who served as Commissioner of Accounts and could not settle estates for his individual customers.

“I got a large amount of jobs and duties for the reason that I was related with a organization with a effectively respected lawyer,” Houff stated. Prior to his seat on the bench, he served on the board of Web page Memorial Hospital and as chairman of the Page County Republican Committee. His civic involvement also arrived at to the Lions Club, the Luray Park Association, Luray Tiny League, Accomplishing Arts of Luray (PAL) and the Principal Avenue Singers.

Even right after much more than two decades, the previous judge who formally retired on April 30 still remembers his initial days on the bench vividly. Possessing held court all over the 26th Judicial District, Houff’s recollection of lawyers he saw in his initially cases reads like a lawful and political “who’s who” in the northern Shenandoah Valley.

“It was May perhaps 15, 2000 in Woodstock…the very first attorney I saw was Todd Gilbert,” Houff claimed of Virginia’s latest Speaker of the Household, who was beforehand a prosecutor in Shenandoah County. “The next day…May 16, 2000, I was in Warren County and one of the initial lawyers I observed was John Bell, now the Commonwealth’s Legal professional in Warren County…and then on May possibly 18, 2000, my 1st day in Pager County I saw Artwork Goff, who was Assistant Commonwealth Attorney at the time and later turned Commonwealth’s Lawyer in Rappahannock County.”

Houff even noted operating with Choose Clark Ritchie, who presided about the June 10 retirement ceremony, when he was a younger Commonwealth’s Attorney in Shenandoah County.

Enjoying an unusually awesome June afternoon in his Luray home a week immediately after his retirement ceremony, the previous decide suggests 3 matters direct him to think about retirement at this time. First, Houff arrived at the optimum details for his retirement back again in 2018. Second, he recalled seriously enjoying a working day off past Veteran’s Day, which fell on a Thursday — generally a busy working day in courtroom. And third, the loss of life of previous Choose Richard A. Claybrook, which Houff mentioned “had a significant impact” on him.

“I just imagined it was time,” he reported.

Houff has agreed to substitute on the bench, but the legislation needs him to be retired for 13 months right before coming back again as a substitute — which tends to make him qualified to grab the gavel all over again on Aug.1.

With a existence rooted in the legislation for practically a 50 % century, the retired choose states not significantly has transformed in the law, though he acknowledges tougher laws on drunk driving in the course of his time on the bench and virtually all penalties for marijuana possession being taken out. He says total attitudes toward the bench in the courtroom have not altered that considerably over the several years and have constantly ranged “from respectful to downright rude.”

“Now the oddity is to see a youthful individual come in with a coat and tie,” Houff mentioned.

On the other hand, regardless of how somebody is dressed or how they spoke, the truthful-minded decide usually tried out to handle absolutely everyone the exact.

“I guess the toughest detail from time to time was to make positive the legislation is utilized to most people in an equivalent-handed manner and not let people’s intelligence, or absence thereof, have an effect on what you do,” he said.

Houff remembered getting instructed as he went as a result of transient education on how to be a decide that “people would alternatively be read than agreed with.”

“In legal scenarios, he heard the entire situation and each and every witness before faithfully applying impartially the specifics of legislation,” the Website page County Bar’s resolution reads. “Not just about every celebration was content with his judgment, but his introduced conclusion was nearly always acknowledged and there have been number of appeals from his rulings.”

Managing absolutely everyone the very same and adhering to the rule of regulation have been mantras that guided Houff’s lawful occupation due to the fact he passed the bar in 1975. His even demeanor and reliable acts of frequent decency — both in the courtroom and the group — have remaining a legacy of compassion and respect.

“The way you deliver [an opinion] and clarify it, is as critical as the final decision by itself,” Houff said. “I hope men and women felt like they have been listened to…I generally tried to be cautious not to be disrespectful to people today no issue how they expressed them selves.”


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