The Honorable John E. Jones, Federal judge for the middle district of Pennsylvania, gave a talk at Smith College on April 27 about his involvement in the case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District and related issues. The talk was part of a series on Ethics and Education. One effect of the Dover case has been a tremendous amount of publicity for Judge Jones himself. Time magazine named him one of its 100 most influential people for 2006. Wired listed him as one of the 10 Sexiest Geeks. He candidly admitted that he probably would not have been invited to speak at Smith had it not been for the Dover case.
On the Trial
He had some interesting remarks about the whole Kitzmiller trial. When it began, Jones himself knew little about the "theory" of Intelligent Design, but brought himself up to speed on the subject by the time the proceedings got underway. He credits his broad-based liberal-arts education at Dickinson College with making him able to familiarize himself quickly with topics that come up in cases before him.
He said the start of the trial, with its intense media coverage, was "utterly surreal." As he observed "there are few things as unnerving as conducting a trial with a row of sketch artists in front of you."
Both sides in the case were "heavily lawyered up," and were utterly serious. The judge never even bothered to have discussions in his chambers with the attorneys for the two sides over procedural matters. Everything was in court, on the record.
The biologists brought in by the plaintiffs impressed Judge Jones quite a bit. They did an excellent job explaining the science of evolution -- the real science rather than the straw-man versions promulgated by creationists. Jones credited their success to the fact that most of them were teachers, and thus had a great deal of skill at communicating information to people.
(Digression: it's a pity that teaching is so undervalued in academia. Kenneth Miller, the star witness for the plaintiffs in the Dover case, is apparently an excellent teacher and his fame now means he needs an agent to deal with speaking requests -- but he's not one of the real superstars of biology. Among biologists the renown goes to researchers, who are often indifferent about teaching. Good teaching may get you glowing comments on your student evaluation forms, but it's publications and grants that get you tenure.)
By contrast with the biologists, the Intelligent Design people did not do at all well on the stand. Michael Behe faded badly under cross-examination, and Jones admitted he felt sorry for the man. The attorneys for the plaintiffs had studied the work of Behe and others very carefully and identified the key logical and factual flaws in their arguments. On the stand, under oath, the Creationists couldn't just blow off difficult questions or change the subject, and the lawyers bored right in.
During the question-and-answer period after his talk one gentleman asked Judge Jones to explain the legal test he used. Jones explained that the Lemon test centers on purpose and effect.
If the purpose of something is legitimately secular, then it can still have religious content. But that purpose has to be real. One argument the Intelligent Design people used was that ID is supposed to promote "critical thinking" -- a legitimate secular goal. Thus, students exposed to both the religious Intelligent Design theory and the materialist theory of Natural Selection would learn to analyze the arguments presented. The trouble was, the actual presentation of Intelligent Design and Darwinian evolution in the Dover curriculum did nothing of the sort.
The purpose aspect of the test was by far the decisive one in the Dover case, but Judge Jones went on to apply the second "prong" of the test just as carefully. What is the effect of the curriculum? In the Dover case, again, the effect of the Intelligent Design material was pretty obviously the promotion of a religious (and specifically Biblical) narrative of creation. Even the Intelligent Design experts like Michael Behe admitted that they couldn't think of any other possible Designer except God. So the curriculum failed that "prong" of the test as well.
Jones wanted to make his decision as thorough and solidly-reasoned as possible in part because he wanted it to serve as a guide for others. His Court's decisions only have legal precedent value in that district, so judges outside central Pennsylvania can't cite the Dover verdict when making similar decisions. But they can (and undoubtedly will) follow Jones's reasoning carefully. Moreover, Jones hopes school districts can use his decision to help clarify the issues in curriculum planning to avoid fiascos like the Dover case.
On the Reaction
One thing which obviously bothered His Honor was some of the commentary after he released his decision. Several pundits -- he singled out Phyllis Schlafly and Bill O'Reilly -- called him an "activist judge" and considered the verdict a betrayal from a Republican appointee.
Judge Jones isn't having any of that. As he points out, a judge who ignored 60 years of precedent and decided the case purely out of political loyalty, poll results, or his own ideology would be the activist. Jones obviously believes very strongly that judges must strive to be objective and non-partisan. He was careful, though, to draw the distinction between independent judges and an unchecked judiciary without any accountability.
Judge Jones believes that commentators "dumb down the public" by assuming all decisions stem from the personal agendas of the judges. (We saw a lot more of this in the recent hearings over confirming the new Supreme Court justices.) Jones suggests better civics education about what judges are supposed to do and how they do it might alleviate this.
He brought up the related, and rather more disturbing issue of actual attacks on judges. There was the murder of the husband and mother of Judge Joan Lefkow in Chicago last year by a disappointed (and deranged) litigant. Judge James Whittemore, who presided over the Schiavo case in Florida required heavy personal security after several people threatened his life. If people think judges just decide things on a whim, then it's easy to see how someone losing a court case might decide to make it a personal vendetta.
"The Rule of Law is not a conservative or a liberal value, a Republican or a Democratic value, but an American value," said Judge Jones.
He did have some interesting background information about the effects of the decision in the Dover school district. Of the nine members of the school board who started the whole mess by adopting an Intelligent Design curriculum for the biology classes, eight were voted out in the next election. Since some of the replacement board members were the plaintiffs in the Dover case, it seems unlikely they'll bring an appeal.
Perhaps getting the school involved in a legal case which ultimately cost the taxpayers of Dover more than a million dollars in legal fees had something to do with the election results. Especially since the original board apparently rejected the advice of their own district solicitor, who had warned against adopting the Intelligent Design material for just that reason.
It's interesting that both of the issues touched on in Judge Jones's talk -- Creationism/Intelligent Design and judicial independence -- ultimately come down to education. People just aren't learning things they need to know. They aren't getting the civics education to understand how courts work, and they aren't getting the science background to distinguish real theories from Creationist straw men. Given that the United States spends something over 400 billion dollars each year on K-12 education, one must ask, what do they learn about?