Jim Jones is a slight, wispy man with a mild manner who rarely moves the needle much with volume or emotion. When he does, it grabs you.
After a 50-year career — about 25 as a practicing attorney and 25 in public service (including the last dozen on the Idaho Supreme Court) — Jones, 74, is a bit of an Idaho version of Forrest Gump when it comes to being in the midst of things as historic events unfolded.
Starting out as an aide to Sen. Len Jordan, Jones was unable to win a seat in Congress. A Republican, he was twice elected Idaho attorney general, and three times was elected (as a nonpartisan) to the state Supreme Court. Jones claims no political affiliation today due to his frustrations with the partisanship that has replaced statesmanship.
The Idaho Statesman Editorial Board invited Jones for a conversation Tuesday, a fascinating two-hour chance to hear perspectives and insights that a sitting judge isn’t often able to share. Jones came in to chat as a uniquely informed citizen.
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Following are excerpts of the interview, which touch on his boyhood on a farm in the Magic Valley, his career in the legal field, and his distinguished military and humanitarian service as an artillery officer during the Vietnam War — an experience still seared in his memory.
Q: This must be quite a new feeling for you, to have left the Supreme Court and now be sharing thoughts about your career.
Having nothing to do in the morning is kind of unusual, but I intend to start filling my days. You get to the point where you think you have to be doing something worthwhile to earn your keep with the good Lord, so I’ve got a number of projects that I’m going to be working on — and, of course, will draw on my experience. I’ve done my book on the big water rights fight we had with Idaho Power — (“A Little Dam Problem”) — which, to quote the introduction, “Within a year of being elected attorney general in 1982, I found myself embroiled in a bitter fight with Idaho Power Company over control of the Snake River.” My next book is going to be based on my Vietnam experience. My wife and I are going over in March to where I was stationed for a while — 407 days actually. The book is going to document my experience there, and how we’ve learned so little. ...
Q: How and why did you end up in the military?
John Kennedy was saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” and I thought, you know what I’m going to do is, I’m going to be a United States senator. So what does a senator do? Well, Nixon and Kennedy were lawyers, so I’m gonna be a lawyer. Both of them had a war record, so OK, I’m gonna get into the service. I mapped out this plan. ... I got my commission in ’64 and then went to law school on deferrals, and then in 1967 I took the bar and went into the Army as a first lieutenant.
Q: Given a choice to be an attorney in the Army — a four-year commitment versus a two-year committment doing something else — you ended up an artillery officer and found yourself over in Vietnam in the middle of the war.
I was assigned to an artillery battalion .... and most of the time I was the liaison officer with the Vietnamese; I lived with the Vietnamese — we got artillery and airstrike clearances for all of the province, so when they wanted to shoot something or drop a load of B 52s, they would call us and ask our Vietnamese friends: “Can we shoot here?” And I did aerial observing over the countryside, distributing artillery shells here and there — blowing up the jungle, I guess. And so, anyway, I’m going back in March to kind of visit the area and see if I can find anybody that was there at the time. I worked with an orphanage (run by the Cao Dai Church in Tay Ninh Province). ... I’m going to take over some pictures of the kids and see if anybody recognizes them. I think they’d probably be in their 60s now.
Q: How did that Vietnam experience shape you?
I think about it all the time. ... It damn near broke my heart in 1975 to see people hanging from helicopters at the American Embassy ... we left those people hanging. I think it is morally unacceptable not to be bringing people who helped the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq and anywhere else — not to give them visas and allow them to immigrate to the U.S.
Q: Should judges be elected?
Well, you know I would not have ever been on the court if it had not been available through the election process. I think we get — when a district judge or an appellate judge resigns during their term, it goes to the judicial council to fill the vacancy and I think that works very well. When I left there were two of us on the court who got on the court because the election avenue was available. ... I don’t know that we have any great need to change the system.
Q: It’s frustrating for journalists and for citizens when judicial candidates are running because you are so circumspect, as to say almost nothing. Looking back on it, did you really have to be so tight-lipped?
I think that we can do a better job. I’ve been thinking of things to maybe improve the election process. ... A lot of people don’t know – they get in the voting booth and it has judges and they are thinking, I didn’t know anything about that. ... I’ve been the ex-officio chairman of the Judicial Council for the last year and a half. I’d like to see the Judicial Council interview candidates for contested races.
Q: Tell us about your work with Sen. Len Jordan and as attorney general. What did you learn, and what were the accomplishments?
Sen. Jordan was talking about the need to recharge the aquifer back in the late ’50s, and so I got a lot of exposure to water law and what you need to do. Not so much water law, I guess more water policy, what the concerns are and the fact that we were — even at that time — starting to mine the aquifer, and I think by far the biggest accomplishment I had that sort of played on that was the Swan Falls thing. It was essentially a make-it-or-break it issue for the state because if there was not some way that we could whittle down Idaho Power’s water right at Swan Falls Dam. Essentially Idaho Power would run the river.
Q: What about Supreme Court?
I think probably my biggest contribution has been on water rights cases. Once the adjudication was finished then you had the question, well, how do you manage this? What people’s priorities are, what the quantity of water is , how do you make that work together?
Q: What did you think of HJR 5, the amendment that passed allowing the Legislature to approve or reject administrative rules without approval of the governor?
I didn’t think it was necessary. I agree with (Attorney General Lawrence) Wasden — I don’t think that the Supreme Court is going to try to meddle in the Legislature’s oversight of agency rules. It just seemed to me that it was not needed.
Q: You don’t consider yourself a Republican anymore. Why?
I am not a member of any party now and I don’t think I will be. I am inclined to believe that the Founding Fathers were correct in fearing the evils that parties could create. They were dead-set against partisanship and I think we’re seeing what they were fearful of in play today.
Q: How strange is it that we can look at our U.S. Supreme Court and think of it in terms of partisanship, or one philosophy versus the other?
I think that is really detrimental to the court as an institution to have these people being vetted for their political views, and I know it happens — it happens on both sides. It didn’t used to be that way. I’d like to see more people from private practice as opposed to people who have been involved in academic pursuits. I don’t think (the late Antonin) Scalia knew how the world worked. You know, he had never been out in private practice or run a business. He was a professor, and nothing wrong with that, but you don’t want to be over-balanced with professors. It would be nice to have people who are well-grounded in private practice, worked for businesses or nonprofits or whatever — saw how the law works at the grass-roots level, and people who are not involved in some sort of political action groups.
Q: What does the phrase “legislating from the bench” mean to you?
Well, I don’t think it happens here ... (but) it’s happened too much on the federal level and the U.S. Supreme Court — and the Voting Rights Act, striking down Section 5. (It’s as if to say) Congress didn’t really mean what it said when it said that they were going to extend scrutiny of these states and counties where discrimination had occurred in the past. They didn’t really mean that when they re-enacted it, so we’re gonna strike down Section 5 — that was pure legislation from the bench.
Q: Do you have a legacy? If so, what is it?
I don’t know — I guess just common sense. I think there is always room for common sense whether you are attorney general or a member of the court or just a member of the general public.
Q: Can you apply some of that common sense to issues such as the faith healing folks who don’t want to see their children get medical attention?
Well, I guess its my observation that a lot of the people who decline to get simple medical care for their children are some of the same people who say you have to bring a child to full-term birth, and my thought is that if you are forced to do that, shouldn’t you be forced to see that once they are part of society they get the right to live? Somebody was mentioning to me that if you have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that you should, you know, be able to get simple medical care that would give you that life or maintain it. I intend to do a little commentary on some of the issues at hand. I sent out a letter yesterday to the members of the Idaho congressional delegation warning them that they ought not allow the president to cozy up to Russia. There are some issues that I want to address and I intend to maybe say something — opening our arms to Syrian refugees. Next week I’m going down to talk to the Rotary Club (Magic Valley), that may be one of the things that I talk about. And one of the things that I’m thinking of talking about is the idea that you can’t let your kids go without basic medical care if it’s going to save their life — that’s not morally acceptable.