Judge John E. Jones III, the presiding judge in the case that kicked ID out of classrooms, came to the University of Kansas to take part on the Difficult Dialogues at The Commons, a series of lectures that is bringing some big names for big discussions.
Jones set as a precondition of his visit that he wouldn’t discuss the contents of his ruling nor the process of the trial. His ruling is comprehensive, and he clearly doesn’t think there’s much to add. He instead wants to take advantage of his fame to clarify how judges do their work.
As he noted, a lot of the commentary, whether before, during and after the trial, focused on his political and religious background, and attempts at sussing out his personal views on creationism. Similar analysis is common leading up to confirmation fights and other big judicial fights. As Jones rightly notes, those factors shouldn’t matter to a judge’s decisionmaking process, and usually don’t play a major role.
He followed up on a point that Sandra Day O’Connor has been making since leaving the Court about the importance of civics classes. “People don’t know how courts work,” how precedent is applied, and indeed of what their rights are. “If you don’t understand your rights, you’re going to get rolled,” he explained. This lack of understanding leads to a dangerous situation for judges. Federal judges have been facing greater and greater threats, and Jones worries that “we are very close to having a federal judge killed.” The threats are not coming from the drug cases he and others are dealing with, but from the cultural cases.
The Dover case was a “surreal” experience, and a “remarkable odyssey.” He had tremendous respect for the lawyers and witnesses. In retrospect, he wishes he allowed CourtTV to broadcast the trial, because he thinks the quality of the lawyering on both sides showed the justice system at its very best.
While he acknowledges that he has perosnal beliefs about the matter of creationism, those beliefs were immaterial to his ruling. In the six weeks of the trial, he learned a great deal, listened to everything the witnesses had to say, and issued a ruling that will be remembered as a milestone for many years.
He quoted from the pretrial commentary at Dembski’s blog about how political considerations were sure to bring a favorable ruling from Jones. Then he quoted the irate commentary from the same blog, from Phyllis Schlafly, and from Pat Robertson, accusing him of biting the hand that fed him and threatening his career. In the end, he says, these sorts of views of how judges work are “false, it’s debilitating.” Judges are not and should not be “susceptible to outside influences.”
This isn’t always the case of course. A while back, Cass Sunstein and Thomas Miles analyzed how Republican nominees and Democratic nominees changed the way they applied deference to executive decisionmaking after a change in the White House. Not surprisingly, Democratic nominees were more deferential to a Democratic president, and Republicans became more deferential after the change in power. That complicates the story, but doesn’t contradict Jones’ point.
In the speech and his question and answer period, Jones steered clear of commenting on any ongoing or future controversies. That was frustrating, but he did let down his hair once or twice. An audience member asked whether Casey Luskin’s criticisms on behalf of the Discovery Institute had any validity. His answer was simply “no.”
After the speech, I asked about what he personally learned during the trial. The New Yorker described the trial as “the biology class you always wished you took,” so I wondered what Jones, the student in that classroom, learned. Kevin Padian’s testimony about the fossil record and the range of transitional fossils clearly grabbed him. The bulk of evidence for evolution can get lost when we focus on the newest discoveries or the latest controversies. Jones got a view of the totality of what we know, and came away impressed.
And having seen him talk, I am too.