J. Frank Holt was a major figure in Arkansas legal and political circles in the 1950s and 1960s. He served in numerous public offices, including two terms on the Arkansas Supreme Court.
In 1961, Holt assumed the office of Arkansas attorney general, succeeding Bruce Bennett. Holt held the office for only two years, leaving the post after being elected in 1962 in a special election for a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court, where he succeeded his cousin J. Seaborn Holt. Holt served on the court until 1966, when he resigned to seek the office of governor. The campaign was a challenge. By all accounts, Holt’s temperament was better suited to the halls of justice than the campaign trail. Too, he emerged as the candidate around whom the state’s Democratic establishment converged, and so in a contest in which race and change—Orval Faubus was stepping down after six terms and twelve years—were central issues, Holt was tagged as the status quo candidate. Meanwhile, on the issue of race, he was not an advocate of wholesale integration, but he recognized the changes that were coming to Arkansas and the South. In response, he maintained that the white-supremacist approach of frontrunner Jim Johnson, a former state Supreme Court justice, would only worsen relations. Holt tried to make voters recognize that Arkansas could not wage war against the modern world and would need to move forward. In the end, while Holt finished as runner-up in a crowded seven-man field, he lost the run-off to Johnson by 15,000 votes. Johnson would subsequently lose to Republican Winthrop Rockefeller.
When an opening on the Arkansas Supreme Court appeared with the retirement in 1968 of Justice Paul Ward, Holt again ran for a seat on the court, and with his victory he began his second term, this one lasting for the rest of his life, giving him a total tenure on the state Supreme Court of almost two decades. While there appear to be no major opinions attributed to Holt, he was a highly respected figure in the legal community, and many young lawyers benefited from his advice and career oversight, with some of his former clerks, including Paul Danielson and Elsijane Trimble Roy, going on to serve on the state’s high court.
Holt’s involvement in the community was not limited to elective office. In 1960, he served as a delegate to the White House Conference on Children and Youth. He also served as the Pulaski County chair of both the American Red Cross and the March of Dimes. He also served as state chair of the Arkansas for Multiple Sclerosis campaign and was active in both the American Legion and the State Fund for Radio Free Europe.
Holt and his wife, Mary Reid Phillips Holt, had two children. Holt died on October 30, 1983, of kidney failure. He is buried in Little Rock.