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10 Questions with Duke professor Charles Holton, J.D.


Charles Holton, J.D., law professor at Duke University, directs the Civil Justice Clinic, which provides legal services to economically disadvantaged clients.
Charles Holton, J.D., law professor at Duke University, directs the Civil Justice Clinic, which provides legal services to economically disadvantaged clients.

Photo courtesy of Duke Law

Not everyone who needs a lawyer can afford one, and sometimes their stories are the most heart-breaking: A single mother who found herself homeless and her two children placed into foster care because of a clerical error a local public housing authority refused to fix. Or an 80-year-old retired teacher who lost her apartment after a chain of events that began with a leaky pipe.

During his 40 years in private practice law, Charles Holton, J.D. (’70) was struck by the number of cases that had merit but never went to trial because the people involved couldn’t afford legal representation. He took many of those cases pro bono, either on his own or working with Legal Aid lawyers as co-counsel.

“In the course of that work, I developed tremendous respect and admiration for those lawyers who were devoting their whole careers to the pursuit of justice for individuals who could not pay for legal assistance,” Holton says. “I also came to understand there were many circumstances where valid legal rights were not being vindicated for want of capable representation.”


Charles Holton is a 1970 summa cum laude graduate from ACU and earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence with distinction from Duke Law School in 1973.
Charles Holton is a 1970 summa cum laude graduate from ACU and earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence with distinction from Duke Law School in 1973.

In 2004, he began teaching as an adjunct professor at Duke Law School. “I found that I really enjoyed teaching as well as practicing law,” he says.

In 2014, his passion for providing equal access to justice took a new form. He became a full-time professor at Duke Law and founded the Civil Justice Clinic, a unique partnership between Duke and Legal Aid of North Carolina. Through the clinic, Holton teaches a seminar in which he mentors students in basic civil litigation skills and oversees their handling of actual cases for economically disadvantaged clients.

Holton is a 1970 summa cum laude graduate from ACU and earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence with distinction from Duke Law School in 1973.

He discusses his career and life in this Q&A:

What do you consider the highlights of your career? Were any cases particularly significant or memorable to you?

I have had the opportunity to work on some very interesting and complex cases involving a variety of issues, litigating them before juries, judges or arbitration panels. One of the most memorable involved representing a health care provider whose employees, through an almost unbelievable series of errors and coincidences involving multiple contractors, inadvertently started using dirty, discarded elevator hydraulic fluid in which to wash surgical instruments that were supposed to be sterile.

This went on for several weeks at two different hospitals and potentially involved hundreds of surgical patients. The cases ran for many years before we were able to resolve them.

How did the Civil Justice Clinic come about? What sparked the idea?

After working in conjunction with several Legal Aid offices over the years, I began serving on the statewide Board of Directors for Legal Aid of North Carolina and eventually became chair of that board. We were regularly short of funding, but the shortage became most severe around 2012-13 when the N.C. Legislature cut off all state funding for Legal Aid, leaving only federal and private funds available. This resulted in severe cutbacks in lawyer manpower and closure of several offices around the state – all of which further reduced services available to the poor.

I had also observed from my personal experience with mentoring young lawyers and students that there was a strong desire on their part for more practical legal experience while in law school, which coincided with a national trend toward expanded clinical education opportunities.

Thus, there was an urgent need for legal services coupled with a strong desire for clinical experience for law students – a perfect fit. I got together with the executive director of Legal Aid, and we made a plan to start a Civil Justice Clinic at Duke, which would work closely with Legal Aid in providing legal services to the poor in our state using law student manpower. I took this plan to then-dean David Levy [now retired], and he committed the law school to raise and provide the resources to create the Duke Civil Justice Clinic, which we started in Fall 2014.

Can you give any examples of how the clinic has helped someone in dire straits?

One other recent case involved an 80-year-old retired schoolteacher living on a fixed income. Her apartment was flooded from a pipe leak in the apartment above her. Thereafter, mold began to grow, and she began to experience severe allergic reactions to it, as diagnosed by her physician, who advised her to move immediately. She went to her landlord, who offered as an alternate a significantly more expensive apartment, which she could not afford.

She ultimately had to move out from the apartment complex. The landlord charged her a substantial early lease termination fee and threatened to adversely affect her credit rating if she did not pay – so she paid the fee. Our clinic undertook to represent her, and after we filed a lawsuit and took depositions of several witnesses, we were able to negotiate a fair settlement from the landlord. Our client, who was deeply religious, remained calm and resolute throughout the process, giving clear and concise testimony at her deposition. She was a great example to our students of someone who would stand up for her rights with grace and strength – but who also needed our assistance to vindicate those rights.

Equally memorable is a case [and several others like it] involving a single mom with two young children, who were evicted from their apartment because of a clerical mistake made by a local public housing authority, which persistently refused to acknowledge the error despite her efforts to explain it to them. She came to us, living out of her car and having had both her children taken away into foster care by social services. We were ultimately able to reverse the eviction, restore her housing, and help her get her children back.

What’s the most satisfying aspect of your job?

Helping people to be heard and treated justly with regard to their significant problems. And making our students aware of these problems and helping to grow in them an ethic of service to others.

What’s the most challenging?

Seeing people with real problems ignored or discriminated against because of their poverty or social status and being unable to achieve a just result for them.

How did you come to attend ACU?

Both my parents attended Abilene Christian College, as it was then known. Numerous other family members taught at or attended ACC. Those connections, coupled with the university’s commitment to Christian education and lifestyle, led to my deciding at very early age to attend there – even though I was raised in Washington, D.C., and most of my high school friends and teachers had never even heard of ACC.

What can you tell me about your experience at Abilene Christian? Any favorite professors, courses, memories from your time in Abilene?

So many great memories. I remember Dr. Tony Ash’s classes on New Testament survey, including his readings at the beginning of each class from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales. I actually purchased a complete set of the tales from him, which he had secured from England because they were not widely available in the U.S. at that time. I remember Dr. LeMoine Lewis’ wonderful class on church history and the passion that he exhibited in enthralling us with the great stories of Christian martyrs.

I remember Dr. Tom Olbricht’s deep and challenging class on Philosophy of Religion.

I remember the great fellowship with my brothers in Frater Sodalis, which was, of course, the best club on campus.

I remember dating my future wife, Anita (Hendon ’70), throughout our entire time on campus, with the exception one two-week period during our freshman year when we dated others, which only served to convince us that we were right for each other. We got married immediately upon graduation.

What can you tell us about your family?

My father, John Holton (’39), was a Texan and an ACC graduate who went to work in Washington, D.C., after graduation, just before the onset of World War II. He obtained a back-office job with Sam Rayburn, another Texan, who was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. After Pearl Harbor, my father enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in the South Pacific. When the war ended, he returned to D.C. to resume work with Rayburn and attended law school at night at what is now George Washington University. He eventually worked his way up to becoming Rayburn’s Chief of Staff for many years. He later continued work on Capitol Hill as legislative counsel to the American Bankers Association. He served as an elder for the 16th and Decatur congregation near downtown Washington.

His father, A.R. Holton, was a prominent Church of Christ minister, who also served for a time as president of Thorp Spring Christian College, a predecessor to Texas Christian University. A.R. Holton is also credited with founding the ACU Lectureship [now known as Summit]. Throughout his ministerial career, he was a strong advocate for racial equity. He and his wife, Verba, later served as a missionaries to Korea.

My mother, Katherine (Roberson ’38) Holton, is also a native Texan, and she attended ACC, marrying my father upon graduation. During their life in D.C., she worked extensively with our local congregation and many others along the East coast regarding Christian education and ladies ministries. She is now living in a retirement/nursing facility near us in Durham, N.C. She recently celebrated her 100th birthday, with many family members in attendance.

Her father was Charles H. Roberson, who was a member of the original faculty of ACC and later became chairman of the Bible Department. He was a highly respected Greek scholar. His wife, Catherine, was also active in many ladies ministries within the church, and for several years she conducted a radio broadcast in Abilene. Her favorite saying, taught to all of us, was “always remember who you are and whom you represent.”

Anita and I have three children, all of whom live in North Carolina. Two of them are lawyers, and the other works in business.

We currently have three grandchildren, with a fourth on the way.

What do your future plans include?

I hope to continue working for as long as I am competent to do so. I am not sure what I would do if retired – and my wife harbors similar concerns! I have served as an elder for our congregation, the Cole Mill Road Church of Christ, for over 25 years, and I find that work to be most challenging and enriching, as well. We enjoy traveling with friends and family, both nationally and internationally. We still like to hike.

What legacy do you hope to leave after such a long and distinguished career?

The legacy of a loving family and close friends; the satisfaction of having helped some others along the way.

— Robin Saylor

Nov. 2, 2018

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