In 1996, Jenifer Holt made history, riding in as the first female circuit judge in Jackson County history.
After 24 years, longer than any other circuit judge in the county, she will ride out in retirement, closing out a storied career.
“I’ve had a wonderful career,” said Holt. “This was my dream job. It’s time someone else fulfills their dream.”
In her office, battling back from COVID, Holt says she is ready for retirement, ready to spend more time with family, especially the grandchildren.
Holt grew up in Scottsboro, the daughter of Ray and Billie Collins. Her father played on the 1944 Jackson County High School state basketball championship team, later served as principal of Scottsboro High School and had a city school named after him.
His baby girl, the one they called Jenny, would make her own history. She graduated high school in 1976, graduated the University of Alabama in 1979 and law school in 1983.
In January 1984, Holt became the first female attorney to open practice in Scottsboro. She practiced law for 12 years.
In 1996, Circuit Judge Loy Campbell retired. Holt ran for the open seat and was elected in June of that year. She took office in October.
As Holt came in, Campbell gave her advice she would never forget. Campbell told her she wasn’t there to make friends. He also told her people don’t like their kids going to prison.
Through the years, Holt presided over cases thrust into a national spotlight.
None were bigger than in 2004 when she presided over capital case that involved three murders, including a child, Christmas eve of 2001.
Ben Brownfield was found guilty and received the death penalty in a trial that lasted three weeks. Brownfield remains on death row.
“It was probably the most important I presided over,” said Holt. “The decisions I made were upheld on appeal. We didn’t have to try it a second time. It’s had its reviews and withstood scrutiny.”
In 2006, the county made national news when a shooting took place outside of the courthouse, injuring two people and sending one man, John Christopher Lee Sr., to prison for life.
That day started in Holt’s courtroom during a custody hearing.
It took a couple of years, but through the hard work and passion of Holt and others, courthouse security came to Jackson County.
“Through the ups and downs, we’ve been able to maintain courthouse security,” said Holt.
She’s presided over other cases, known and unknown, that were emotional, such as ruling on man to remove a grave in the front yard of his residence in Stevenson.
“As a judge, you rule based on the law,” said Holt. “You have cases that tug at the heart, but you have to set aside the emotions of the case.”
Through the years, Holt said she believes she was always firm but fair.
“I’ve always tried to do what the law provides,” she said. “I always felt comfortable with my decisions.”
Holt said her job was made easier with a good system in Jackson County, including great local attorneys who were always prepared, a solid circuit clerk’s office and good law enforcement.
She also credited a great staff, the best any judge could ask for over the years. Most important, Holt said, was the people of Jackson County.
“I’m grateful to the people who let me serve the last 24 years,” she said. “I am thankful.”
On Jan. 17, 2021, Holt will spend her last day in office before handing it over to Brent Benson. She will become a supernumerary judge, on call to preside over cases across the state, if needed.
But better, her and husband, Buddy, a retired educator, will be on call for the grandchildren. She can’t wait.