A Judge of Character

By Chapman, Matthew | The Humanist, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

A Judge of Character


Chapman, Matthew, The Humanist


I FIRST MET JUDGE JOHN E. JONES in 2005 when he was presiding over the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in Pennsylvania, in which a group of eleven parents were suing their local school district to prevent intelligent design being taught in science class. They argued that it was a religious theory, essentially creationism, and therefore contravened the establishment clause of the First Amendment. I was there as a reporter, and it was a very unusual trial, a fantastic intellectual debate involving politics, theology, the philosophy and history of science, and, most centrally, biology. And it was a real lesson for me and I think for Judge Jones as well, for everybody. There was no jury so Judge Jones would be the sole arbiter. And this was the year when President Bush--who had appointed Jones--said the jury was still out on evolution, and members of the press, myself included, wondered how this would affect him. When the trial was over I decided to write a book about it and so went to visit Judge Jones and his family in Pottsville.

Judge Jones was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated entirely there. He went to Blue Mountain High School, a public school, and then on to Mercersburg Academy, a prep school from which Jimmy Stewart and Benicio del Toro graduated. (Incidentally, all the female reporters in the trial had a huge crush on Jones and they used to say he looked like del Toro but with Stewart's character. He was also compared to Robert Mitchum.)

Jones went to Dickinson College and then on to law school at Dickinson School of Law which is part of Pennsylvania State University. He was admitted to the bar in December of 1980 and went to work for a small law firm in Pottsville while also clerking for a judge. A year after he took his bar exam, he met and married his wife, Beth, a teacher who had also grown up in the area, and they later had two children.

Before long, Jones became an assistant public defender before starting his own law firm in 1986. During these years, he was involved in cases ranging from petty theft to homicide.

In 1992 Jones ran for Congress as a Republican, a race he lost narrowly. In 1995 he was appointed chairman of the Pennsylvania State Liquor Control Board, one of the largest, if not the largest, state monopolies in the United States, which bought, sold, and regulated alcohol in the state. In his day it sold over a billion dollars of alcohol a year. In effect, Jones went from being a small town lawyer to the de facto CEO of the equivalent of a Fortune 500 company with the additional pressure of having to testify in budgetary hearings before the State's House and Senate. During this period, he received several awards and commendations for his work on behalf of alcohol education, particularly in the area of underage drinking on college campuses.

In February 2002, Judge Jones was appointed to his present position and was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in July 2002. Three years later, Kitzmiller v. Dover landed on his desk. Within a year, he had rendered his groundbreaking opinion and in May of 2006, he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the year. (This is what I love about America--one minute you're running a liquor store, next thing you're on the cover of Time. Kind of fantastic, isn't it?)

I came across Jones in this trial, and watching him in court, it soon became apparent that he was a highly civilized and thoughtful man. More than just polite, he was courteous, a gentleman, a man who treated everyone around him with equal respect. I never once saw him leave the courtroom without thanking the bailiff who stood guard at the door. But he was also funny. One day, an objection was raised as to the admissibility of a question. An acrimonious debate followed with lawyers on both sides giving it their all. After at least fifteen minutes of this, Judge Jones ruled that the question was, in fact, admissible and the question was asked again and the witness said, "I got no idea. …

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