Judge explains ‘intelligent design’ ruling


The legal reasoning behind his ruling that “intelligent design” cannot constitutionally be taught as “science” in public schools, and the importance of Missouri retaining its Non-Partisan Court Plan to assure an independent judiciary were the subjects of a major address by Judge John E. Jones, a U.S. District federal judge serving in Pennsylvania. Jones spoke at a gathering of more than 150 people at an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters of St. Louis, which was held at the Ethical Society last week.

In a brief interview with the St. Louis Jewish Light prior to his formal remarks, Jones, a Republican who was nominated to serve as a federal judge by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate in 2002, said that major Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League “have been very supportive” of his ruling in a case arising in Dover, Pa., in which he found that teaching “intelligent design” as “science” in public schools violates the separation of church and state principle in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

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In addition to his ruling in the intelligent design case, Jones strongly encouraged Missourians to retain the Non-Partisan Court Plan, which was adopted in 1940, under which judges in covered jurisdictions and higher courts are nominated on a non-partisan basis, for later appointment by the governor. “Your system assures that judges will not be subjected to pressures from those who supported them politically, and empowers them to make independent decisions in tough cases like the intelligent design and similar cases.” Jones was pleased that the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and other Jewish groups support the retention of the plan, which has been under attack from various conservative groups in Missouri. “It would be a big mistake to eliminate a system which is the envy of much of the rest of the nation,” Jones said.

Jones, a native of Pennsylvania and a graduate of the Penn State School of Law, received the first John Marshall Award for Judicial Independence in recognition of his ruling. Prior to serving on the bench, Jones served as a volunteer attorney for the DARE anti-drug school program, and as a Scoutmaster.

In his remarks, Jones said, “I have had the most remarkable odyssey since deciding the intelligent design case in 2005. Without the principle of judicial independence in our federal court system, I could not have rendered such a decision. Judicial independence means that judges must strive for fair and impartial ruling, hearing cases free of favor or political influence by those who put the judge in office. This certainly was true in the case of Kistmiller v. the School Distrcit of Dover.”

Jones added, “unfortunately, very few Americans really understand and appreciate the concept of judicial independence. I was a Republican when I was named to the federal bench in 2002. The Kistmiller case came to me in December 2004, and was really an example of the ‘third rail’ kind of hot button issue, the intersection of religion, the Constitution and politics. I decided the case not on the basis of political considerations, but on the basis of the law.”

Jones said that after he handed down the ruling, he was the target of severe criticism from various right-wing TV hosts and commentators, including Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter.

“Ann Coulter said that I was a ‘hack,’ and the worst judicial selection Bush made since he nominated Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Jones said, “It is alarming to me that the public is being fed this kind of misinformation about the role of the judiciary. Judges should not rule on the basis of who their political benefactors were or are, but on the basis of the law.” He added that the increased vitriolic attacks on judges for their rulings, such as when former Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas threatened to “hold federal judges accountable for their rulings” could have a chilling effect.

Jones added that many judges at various levels in the case of Terri Schiavo ruled on the basis of family law, rather than the political approach taken by the U.S. Senate which intervened to make it a federal case. “State courts usuallly decide family law cases. After Terri Schiavo died after her feeding tube was removed, Tom DeLay issued his warning that judges would be held accountable for their rulings.”

Jones said that he had met members of Missouri’s Supreme Court who expressed concern over the threats to the Non-Partisan Court Plan. “I am familiar with the Non-Partisan Court Plan, and why you would want to scrap it is beyond my understanding.”