Judge in Dover I.D. case touts legal independence

When Judge John E. Jones III began hearing the federal Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case last year, intelligent design proponents thought they had their man at the bench.

After all, Jones was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush. He was a Lutheran, a churchgoer and a lifelong Republican.

Then he made his ruling: The Dover Area School District couldn’t teach intelligent design in science classrooms. It wasn’t constitutional.

“I.D. is grounded in theology,” Jones wrote in his decision, “not science.”

On Tuesday night, Jones explained to a packed house in Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas Union how his decision contradicted what many pundits and politicians thought he should do – but judges don’t bow to politics.

They bow, he said, to the Constitution, the law.

“The experience was and continues to be : surreal,” he said.

The Dover case, as it is now commonly known, pitted 11 concerned parents against a faction of conservatives there who thought intelligent design – the belief that life is too complicated to have not been designed by some higher being – should be taught side by side with the theory of evolution in classrooms.

Sound familiar?

Although the issue consumed the lives of the experts and activists he heard in that Pennsylvania courtroom, Jones said the issue didn’t affect him.

Rather, he did what many didn’t expect him to: rule based on the law and legal precedent, rather than bow to politics.

“People do not really understand how the courts work in the United States,” he told the audience Tuesday.

After the decision, conservative pundits vilified him, he said, calling him “fascist” and predicting natural disasters.

For a week, federal marshals protected him from a constant barrage of death threats, he said. It’s happened to other federal judges in high-profile cases.

The problem stems from what Jones called “a creeping civic stupidity,” where the public, for whatever reason, thinks judges should bow to what politicians say or polls show.

It doesn’t work that way, he said. Only the Constitution or higher courts can lead judges’ actions.

So Tuesday, Jones said he was continuing his crusade to inform people, or to get teachers in elementary schools and high schools to let their kids know: Judges are independent, bound only to the law.

“If this doesn’t stop,” he said, “I’m convinced we’re close to getting a judge killed or seriously hurt on the federal level.”