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Judge in landmark ruling to lecture at SOU campus

Appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, Judge John E. Jones III became an authority on incivility when he ruled in a Pennsylvania case that it's unconstitutional to teach creationism in pubic schools.

Jones, a Republican, won instant political notoriety and had to get federal protection against death threats when he ruled in 2005 that teaching intelligent design violated the First Amendment, which states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Jones will lecture twice on the topic — and on civility in public discourse — at Southern Oregon University.

His talk, "From Scopes to Kitzmiller: Civil Incivility at the Intersection of Science, Religion and the Law," will be at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 13, at the Music Recital Hall. His talk, "Judicial Opinions and Civil Discourse: Is it Judicial Activism or Simply a Decision I Don't Like?" is at 4 p.m., Friday, Oct. 14, in the Rogue River Room of the Stevenson Union.

The "Campus Theme" lectures this term cover the topic of civility, said philosophy teacher Prakash Chenjeri, who organizes the events.

For his 139-page opinion, Jones was excoriated by conservative pundits, including Bill O'Reilly and Phyllis Schlafly, and branded as an activist judge who betrayed voters and the politicians who put him in his job.

The landmark case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, was an extension of legal precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts, going back to the famed Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925, said Jones, and had to be decided — not based on public will or opinion — but on law alone. "I'm tempted to say incivility is worse than ever," said Jones, in a phone interview. "But in the late 1700s, before libel and slander laws, it was scandalous, with use of pseudonyms, as rotten as it could get."

Today, the 24-hour news cycle and "viral punditry," said Jones, "amps up the negative aspects a lot."

Much of today's incivility in the public arena comes from a "witch's brew" — a simple lack of a good civics education and the failure to teach American government well, said Jones.

"People don't understand how laws are made, and then it all gets whipsawed by the punditry," Jones says. "People are speaking out of turn who frankly don't know what they're talking about."

The incivility often seen at town halls and speeches today, he notes, could be "a result of the public's frustration with government at all levels. They want practical solutions and have distaste for what they consider to be posturing and excessively partisan behavior by elected officials.

"This boils over at public meetings and leads to incivility and in-your-face confrontations. At bottom, I think people feel like their priorities are not being addressed, and this foments edgy and at times bad behavior."

When he lectures, he said, "people are generally delighted that a federal judge is meeting them face to face — and I always take questions."

Jones gives his audiences a history lesson showing the genius of the framers who, with no model to go on, created the executive and legislative branches responsive to the votes and wishes of the public — and a judicial branch whose members, once confirmed, make decisions based on law and "are like emancipated children ... we appreciate the appointment by the president but are not beholden to him."

The most vivid example of the U.S. Supreme Court going against popular will, he said, was Brown v. Board of Education, banning racial segregation in public schools in 1954, leading Republican President Dwight Eisenhower to declare that his appointment of Chief Justice Earl Warren was the worst decision he ever made.

"I don't know if George W. Bush ever said that about little old me," Jones said. "But it would be highly inappropriate for me to retain any ties to the executive branch.

"It (Brown v. Board) was wholly unpopular, you can hardly imagine. A lot of people, probably the majority of the country, wanted to impeach the entire court. But we're not responsible to the majority," said Jones, only to the law and the Constitution.

The frequent 5-4 split of today's high court, Jones emphasized, is "not an attempt to please political benefactors but represents an ideological split."

The framers probably would be surprised at the powerful role the Supreme Court has taken on as "a reviewer of laws" passed by Congress, a role it established with Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the first time it declared a law "unconstitutional."

Since then, he says, a "natural tension" has evolved between the branches.

Jones ran once, unsuccessfully, for Congress and, as an ally of former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, explored a run for governor.

But now he calls himself "a recovered politician" and is happy on the bench.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.