By Randy Arrington
LURAY, June 17 — Over the course of his 22 years on the bench in General District Court, the Honorable William Dale Houff heard a lot of stories, explanations and excuses to justify the charges against the thousands that appeared before him. One defendant even blamed his small dog for his excessive speed on the highway.
“He said that the dog got under his foot and pressed the gas pedal,” Houff recalled. “Well it wasn’t a very big dog and I doubted that it caused all of the excessive speed…but I gave the dog credit for 7 mph, which dropped it under reckless driving.”
The ruling proved to be exemplary of Houff’s philosophy toward interpreting the law and showing common decency toward his fellow man.
“I didn’t see very many bad people,” the former district judge said of the many defendants that have stood before him. “I saw a lot of good people who did a bad thing.”
On June 10, a joint session of Page County courts recognized Houff’s retirement from the bench as his portrait was hung in the General District Court room he presided over since his investiture in 2000. A resolution from the Page County Bar Association was read by Luray attorney Robert Janney.
“Judge Houff possessed the necessary qualities to have earned the reputation of being a very respected judge,” Janney read. “Those qualities being fairness, appropriate demeanor, excellent knowledge of the law, and respect for those appearing before him, including not only the attorneys but the parties before the Court.”
Houff credits former Virginia delegate and current Page County supervisor Allen Louderback with helping him become a judge during confirmation in the General Assembly. He had wanted to have Louderback speak at his investiture 22 years ago, but the new judge was overly conscious at the time of a warning he had received to not be involved in any way publicly with politics. So, to make up for that, Houff asked Louderback to speak at his June 10 retirement ceremony.
Nearly 100 attended the ceremony, including family, past and current colleagues, clerks, attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers and even a few friends who attended his investiture 21 years ago. Some of their words stuck with him throughout his tenure on the bench.
“I remember [attorney] George Shanks saying that the General District Court may be the highest court that most people ever get heard in because they can’t afford to take it further,” Houff said, noting a special reference to that fact in the Bar’s resolution.
“In civil matters coming before him, he was ever cognizant of the financial circumstances of the litigants appearing before him and viewed his responsibilities and rulings as a Court of Last Resort,” the resolution stated.
Nearly all charges placed by the state (except direct indictments) are initiated in General District Court. Some are directed to Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court due to the involvement of minors and domestic situations, and others are kicked up to the Circuit Court level because of the severity of the crimes — but the bulk of cases that go through the judicial system are heard, judged and sentenced in General District Court.
“We could easily go through 200 cases in a day…it could be as high as 300…now, they are mostly traffic offenses and some of them move rather quickly. We’re not trying 300 cases, that would be impossible,” Houff said. “A quarter prepay, a quarter don’t show up [to court], a quarter show up and plead guilty, and the remaining quarter may want to be heard, but it’s often something quite simple.”
Although the law has proven to be his life’s work, the former attorney and judge said that he wasn’t always certain that it would be his calling.
“I didn’t know in early ’72,” Houff said. “I was a chemistry major at Bridgewater College.”
Growing up in Weyers Cave, 1968 graduate of Fort Defiance High School in Augusta County became interested in debate and communications during his time at Bridgewater. Phil Stone, who later became the president of BWC, convinced Houff to consider a career in the law, and he would spend two summers clerking at Wharton, Aldhizer and Weaver in Harrisonburg. A strong performance on his LSATs made the decision final.
“Law served to give me more options,” Houff said, “and it kept me from making a decision.”
After receiving his Bachelor of Arts cum laude from Bridgewater, Houff earned his Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1975. Through connections in the Harrisonburg law office where he clerked, Houff went into practice with John M. Swetnam as an associate. Swetnam represented big clients in Page County, such as Luray Caverns and Page Valley Bank (now Blue Ridge Bank).
“His association with Jack Swetnam brought him into the Page County Bar under the wing of a pillar of the legal and financial community,” the resolution honoring Houff reads. “He could have had no finer mentor than Jack Swetnam, who was known as a man of probity, scrupulous care, fairness, attention to detail, and gentle good humor.”
Swetnam was 62 when Houff joined his firm, which changed its name to Swetnam and Houff in 1978. The firm would retain that name even after Swetnam’s death in 1992, and Houff would remain the only practitioner in the office until his election to the bench in the 26th Judicial District in 2000.
“He helped me a lot,” Houff said of Swetnam, who he credits as being his greatest mentor. “He did more business and I did a lot of real estate, which is unusual for district court judges who often come from more criminal backgrounds…but I was well served by my real estate background. He was a very large and imposing fella…dressed impeccably. He scared a lot of people even though he was as nice as could be.”
While still practicing law, Houff served as assistant commissioner of accounts in Page County from 1979 through 2000. In that role, he helped settle estates, especially for Robey G. Janney, who served as Commissioner of Accounts and could not settle estates for his own clients.
“I got a lot of jobs and responsibilities because I was associated with a firm with a well respected attorney,” Houff said. Prior to his seat on the bench, he served on the board of Page Memorial Hospital and as chairman of the Page County Republican Committee. His civic involvement also reached to the Lions Club, the Luray Park Association, Luray Little League, Performing Arts of Luray (PAL) and the Main Street Singers.
Even after more than two decades, the former judge who officially retired on April 30 still remembers his first days on the bench vividly. Having held court throughout the 26th Judicial District, Houff’s recollection of attorneys he saw in his first cases reads like a legal and political “who’s who” in the northern Shenandoah Valley.
“It was May 15, 2000 in Woodstock…the first attorney I saw was Todd Gilbert,” Houff said of Virginia’s current Speaker of the House, who was previously a prosecutor in Shenandoah County. “The next day…May 16, 2000, I was in Warren County and one of the first attorneys I saw was John Bell, now the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Warren County…and then on May 18, 2000, my first day in Pager County I saw Art Goff, who was Assistant Commonwealth Attorney at the time and later became Commonwealth’s Attorney in Rappahannock County.”
Houff even noted working with Judge Clark Ritchie, who presided over the June 10 retirement ceremony, when he was a young Commonwealth’s Attorney in Shenandoah County.
Enjoying an unusually cool June afternoon in his Luray home a week after his retirement ceremony, the former judge says three things lead him to consider retirement at this time. First, Houff reached the maximum points for his retirement back in 2018. Second, he recalled really enjoying a day off last Veteran’s Day, which fell on a Thursday — normally a busy day in court. And third, the death of former Judge Richard A. Claybrook, which Houff said “had a significant impact” on him.
“I just thought it was time,” he said.
Houff has agreed to substitute on the bench, but the law requires him to be retired for 13 weeks before coming back as a substitute — which makes him eligible to grab the gavel again on Aug.1.
With a life rooted in the law for nearly a half century, the retired judge says not much has changed in the law, although he acknowledges tougher laws on drunk driving during his time on the bench and almost all penalties for marijuana possession being removed. He says overall attitudes toward the bench in the courtroom haven’t changed that much over the years and have always ranged “from respectful to downright rude.”
“Now the oddity is to see a young person come in with a coat and tie,” Houff said.
However, regardless of how someone is dressed or how they spoke, the fair-minded judge always tried to treat everyone the same.
“I guess the hardest thing sometimes was to make sure the law is applied to everybody in an equal-handed fashion and not let people’s intelligence, or lack thereof, affect what you do,” he said.
Houff remembered being told as he went through brief training on how to be a judge that “people would rather be heard than agreed with.”
“In criminal cases, he heard the whole case and every witness before faithfully applying impartially the facts of law,” the Page County Bar’s resolution reads. “Not every party was happy with his judgment, but his announced decision was almost always accepted and there have been few appeals from his rulings.”
Treating everyone the same and adhering to the rule of law have been mantras that guided Houff’s legal career since he passed the bar in 1975. His even demeanor and consistent acts of common decency — both in the courtroom and the community — have left a legacy of compassion and respect.
“The way you deliver [an opinion] and explain it, is as important as the decision itself,” Houff said. “I hope people felt like they were listened to…I always tried to be careful not to be disrespectful to people no matter how they expressed themselves.”
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