Born in New Kent County, Virginia, Halyburton attended the University of Virginia School of Law and received an A.B. from Harvard College in 1823. He entered private practice in New Kent County in 1824, also serving briefly as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He was a Commonwealth's attorney of the New Kent Circuit until 1844.
On June 15, 1844, Halyburton was nominated by President John Tyler to a seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia vacated by John Y. Mason. Halyburton was confirmed by the United States Senate on June 15, 1844, and received his commission the same day. However, he resigned his federal judgeship April 24, 1861 to become a judge of the District of Virginia for the Confederate States of America, the day Virginia passed its Ordinance of Secession.
Although the Confederate Constitution provided for a Supreme Court, one was never established, largely because of political disagreements. In the absence of a chief judge, Halyburton, as ranking judge of the Confederate capital, swore in Jefferson Davis at Davis's second inauguration, February 22, 1862. (Davis had been first sworn in as president February 22, 1861, under the CSA provisional constitution).
J.D. Halyburton in The Guns of the SouthEdit
On March 4, 1868, Judge J.D. Halyburton joined the other dignitaries on a platform in Richmond's Capitol Square in order to administer the oath office to President-elect Robert E. Lee and V.P.-elect Albert Gallatin Brown. After doing so, Halyburton stood to one side to allow President Lee to make his inaugural address. As Lee began, a gust of wind blew his hat to the floor and Lee bent over to retrieve it. This saved his life as several bullets cracked though the space he had just occupied.
Although not a war veteran, Halyburton immediately recognized what was happening and swept Lee off the platform. He then fell off the platform with a shoulder wound. As Lee attempted to stand to see what was happening Halyburton grabbed his ankle preventing him from rising and shouted "Stay down here, you damned fool, it's you they're shooting at". Up until that point Lee had not realized he was the target of an assassination attempt but then remained under cover.
After the assassins were killed or captured, Lee requested a warrant from Halyburton to search the America Will Break headquarters by the Mechanics Hall. As Halyburton nursed his wounded shoulder, he agreed, using colorful language to do so.