Judge Jones

Commentator: 
Tom Shipka
Audio: 
Transcript: 

John Locke, America's philosophical father, cited as a key objective of government to provide "known and indifferent judge(s) with authority to determine all differences according to the established law..." (1) Locke's ideal of an independent judiciary guided only by the law has not always been realized in practice in the United States. One clear case in which it was involves federal Judge John E. Jones III who sits on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. On December 20, 2005, Judge Jones issued a 139-page ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.
The case involved a challenge by eleven parents to a decision by the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board to introduce the doctrine of intelligent design in ninth grade science classes as a plausible scientific alternative to evolution. The parents alleged that this constituted a violation of the First Amendment prohibition against government endorsement of religion because intelligent design is a religious doctrine and not a scientific one.
To rule on this case competently, Judge Jones was required to know and apply not only the relevant law, including the Constitution of the U.S., the Constitution of Pennsylvania, and dozens of complicated prior rulings, but also to understand the methodology of science, the theory of evolution, and the doctrine of intelligent design. To rule on this case fairly, Judge Jones was required to distance himself from the culture wars in America and from the intense passions which surrounded the case in Dover.
In his ruling Judge Jones found that intelligent design is not a testable scientific hypothesis but "a mere relabeling of creationism" that has no place in a public school science curriculum. His clear and cogent ruling followed weeks of testimony by expert witnesses to whom he obviously listened intently.
As Time magazine observed, "Had (Judge) Jones been a Democrat or an atheist, his judgment might have had less impact." (2) The fact that he was a Republican, a Bush-appointee, and a Lutheran, took a lot of the steam out of the intelligent-design movement nationally. (3)
In the conclusion of his ruling, Judge Jones hit upon a key point. He wrote that the proponents of intelligent design have made a "bedrock assumption which is utterly false," namely, that they must choose between God or science. (4) Drawing on the testimony of expert witnesses in the case, he insisted that evolution and other well-established scientific theories are compatible with "belief in the existence of a supreme being and religion in general." (5)
After Judge Jones issued his ruling, he and his family were put under the protection of federal marshals because of death threats and he was also rebuked by critics, such as Phyllis Schlafly, who said he had "stuck the knife in the backs" of evangelical Christians in Pennsylvania. (6) Judge Jones replied to Schlafly in a speech on February 10, 2006, in which he reminded all of us of that "judges must be impartial and that the independence of the judiciary is premised on a judge's pledge of freedom from partisan influences." (7)
Judge Jones's speech probably did not win over those disappointed by his ruling. Nevertheless, by his knowledge, courage, and devotion to judicial impartiality, he is a model to his peers and a judge who deserves consideration for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court when there is a vacancy.



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  1.  The Second Treatise of Government, Chapter IX, Of the Ends of Political Society and Government, 1690.
  2. Matt Ridley, Time, April 30, 2006
  3.  Ibid.
  4.  Case No. 04cv2688, p. 136
  5. Ibid. Two of the expert witnesses in the trial have written books aimed at showing the compatibility of evolution and belief in God. See Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin's God, and John F. Haught, God after Darwin. Miller is a cell biologist at Brown University and Haught is a theologian at Georgetown University. Both are Roman Catholics.
  6.  Phyllis Schlafly, Townhall.com, January 2, 2006
  7.  Speech by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III to the Anti-Defamation League, National Executive Committee Meeting, Palm Beach, Florida, February 10, 2006. See www.adl.org/Civil_Rights/speech_judge_jones.asp

© 2007 Tom Shipka