Last week, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of Pennsylvania announced that he plans to step down from the federal bench and take the position of interim president of Dickinson College, his alma mater.
Americans United received this news with mixed emotions. We’re big fans of Jones, who in 2005 penned the powerful decision striking down “intelligent design” (ID) creationism in Dover, Pa., public schools. That case, brought by Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm Pepper Hamilton with expert assistance and support from the National Center for Science Education, was an important reminder of the need to keep religious doctrine out of public school science classes. Jones’ 139-page ruling was so strong that few districts since then have tried to force ID onto students. (The ruling was also celebrated for its straightforward style. Jones blasted the school board’s “breathtakingly inanity” in passing the ID policy and criticized the “utter waste of monetary and personal resources” spent on its defense.)
While we’re sad to see Jones leave the bench, we’re also happy for him. We know it must be very satisfying for Jones to assume a prestigious position at a school that obviously means a lot to him.
“I’m pretty much 24-7 Dickinson when I’m not a federal judge,” Jones told the Associated Press. (Dickinson, by the way, is also the alma mater of former AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.)
The federal judiciary could use more judges like Jones. A lifelong Republican, he was appointed to the federal judiciary by President George W. Bush – but Jones understood that his job was to uphold the Constitution, not issue partisan rulings.
Jones’ ruling in the Dover case infuriated many Christian nationalists. Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum penned a screed asserting, “This federal judge, who owes his position entirely to those voters and the president who appointed him, stuck the knife in the backs of those who brought him to the dance.”
In 2008, I had the privilege of hearing Jones speak and got to meet him during a conference sponsored by the American Humanist Association. His remarks were a masterful defense of an independent judiciary.
“The judicial branch protects against the tyranny of the majority,” Jones observed. “We are a bulwark against public opinion. And that was very much done with a purpose, and I think that it really has withstood the test of time. The judiciary is a check against the unconstitutional abuse and extension of power by the other branches of government.”
Nine years after the Dover ruling, Jones issued another decision that infuriated Christian nationalists but that advanced human rights and basic decency when he struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples. The decision was also celebrated for its eloquence. As usual, he was blunt: “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”
We wish Judge Jones well in his new venture. He leaves behind a powerful legacy. It’s one I wish other federal judges – including some sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court – would take note of.