Robert Ehlert

‘Unshackled’ former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones undaunted by his cancer diagnosis

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

I am struggling to find the justice around the fate that has overtaken former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones, who just retired six weeks ago after a 50-year career of public and private service in the law.

Late last month, Jones, 74, found out he has pancreatic cancer — just as he and his wife were about to embark on a series of speaking events around the state and a return visit to a Vietnamese orphanage where he volunteered during the war.

A gnawing pain in his side led Jones to make an appointment with his doctor, which resulted in tests and the diagnosis. That led to surgery to remove a tumor, and it will lead to a course of chemotherapy in March at the St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute.

“It is an exocrine tumor, and if one consults with Mr. Google, it’s the variety that you would prefer not to have,” Jones said Thursday by telephone as he was about to get behind the podium for a speaking engagement in Hailey. “But the doctor has been very encouraged by how quickly I bounced back from surgery.”

I just met Jones for the first time Jan. 10 when he came in for a chat with the Idaho Statesman Editorial Board — his first interview since retiring from the Supreme Court. The slight, calm, slow-speaking man answered every question head-on, each response resonating with the crisp wisdom and conviction of someone who has dispensed with pretext.

“You sit there for 12 years on the bench, and you want to jump into the public fray but you can’t. Judicial ethics don’t allow that,” he said. “I’ve got 12 years of opinions bottled up. So now it’s Jim Jones unshackled.”

Though he ran as a Republican during his political career, in retirement he claims no party affiliation — only a desire to speak up when he sees injustice.

Not long after the ink was dry on President Donald Trump’s executive order covering immigration and refugees, Jones penned a scathing response and circulated it Jan. 28 to Idaho media outlets — just days before his Jan. 31 surgery.

After surgery he was back on his laptop writing an op-ed about how damaging Trump’s “judge bashing” comments about the judiciary were. And now he’s back on the speaking circuit, defending refugees and other disenfranchised groups.

His latest op-ed takes on Idaho’s faith-healing exemption for people who deny medical treatment to their children: “Since at least the 1980s, when I served as Idaho attorney general, the Legislature has passed numerous laws intended to support the right to life by using the power of the government to require women to carry a fetus to term. To my knowledge, none of those measures contained a religious exemption. The question arises as to whether the right to life of some children in our great state ceases upon birth. It is time for the Legislature to stand up for our children and to require that faith-healing parents provide basic health care to their children.”

The author of one book, “A Little Dam Problem,” which covers “how Idaho almost lost control of the Snake River,” Jones had wanted to return to Vietnam next month to begin a book about his time there serving as an Army artillery officer — but mostly to locate people he used to serve with at an orphanage run by the Cao Dai Church in Tay Ninh Province.

Though that trip is off because of chemotherapy, he’s already logged two chapters on a book about his cancer experience. Among the topics: concerns for Idahoans — unlike him — who don’t have the coverage to go see a doctor and discover a serious illness at an early stage.

“I was retired for two weeks and then this adventure starts,” he said. “Like I learned in law school and the Army, you don’t worry about what has happened, you focus on how you can get out of this mess. ... I’m lucky. Generally you get no warning signs of pancreatic cancer. You find out at Stage 3 or 4 and then you’re dead. They caught mine at Stage 1 just before it exploded.”

The “unshackled” Jim Jones is going to take the lemons of his predicament and “make some lemonade.”

Robert Ehlert: 208-377-6437, @IDS_HelloIdaho