Although Idaho Chief Justice Jim Jones was a loyal Republican in his political life, he drew inspiration as a young man through President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961 in which he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
“I decided I was going to be a United States senator,” Jones said. “So I studied up on what a senator did. I knew I had to get a law degree, had to get a war record and had to work for a senator.”
Put check marks on all three. He got his law degree, served during the Vietnam war and worked for Sen. Len Jordan during his time in office.
The only thing missing from the resume was winning an election to the office. Jones lost to former Sen. Larry Craig in the 1990 GOP primary, and was defeated in 1978 in his bid to unseat Rep. George Hansen.
But the 74-year-old Jones has no shortage of lifetime accomplishments – both for his country and for Idaho. He served eight years as Idaho’s attorney general and is completing 12 years as an Idaho Supreme Court justice. He is retiring as chief justice at the end of the year.
In Idaho, Supreme Court justices are often seen – maybe at grocery stores, or shopping malls – but they are seldom heard. Campaigns for the office generally are dull, and that’s by design.
“In a recent debate, I heard Bernie Sanders say he would never appoint someone who would not overrule Citizens United … and Hillary Clinton said the same thing,” Jones said. “Under the code of judicial conduct, a judge – or prospective judge – wouldn’t dare make a commitment on a certain case. Doing otherwise cheapens the judiciary.”
As Jones sees it, there are not many issues for Idaho Supreme Court candidates to talk about. Hot-button issues such as abortion, ag-gag, gay marriage and the possible state takeover of federal lands are handled at the federal level.
“Terms such as ‘conservative,’ or ‘liberal’ don’t fit the profile of what we try to do,” he said. “We end up doing stuff that is not glamorous, but has an effect on day-to-day life – such as worker’s compensation, contract disputes, property disputes, some criminal law and domestic relations. A decision made on domestic relations has an effect in the future. We also work a lot on water-management issues.”
For Jones, life on the Supreme Court has been a fitting place for a “dedicated introvert” such as himself. “I don’t need private escape doors here,” he said with a chuckle.
Such was not the case during his years as attorney general, when he was in the middle of controversy surrounding the Swan Falls water settlement with Idaho Power, which he says set the stage for today’s management practices. He also is remembered for taking on the oil companies for high gas prices.
“One day I got a call from somebody who was talking about how gas prices in Idaho were higher than other states, so I decided to look into it,” he said. “I wrote a letter to the major oil companies, and just about every newspaper in the state picked it up – at a time when people read newspapers.”
Almost immediately, he said, gas prices in Idaho dropped about 14 cents, then fell another seven cents the next day. He received some generous pats on the back. “It was as if I had invented some miracle product. I could have been elected king, and in reality, I didn’t have to do much.”
No kingdom awaits Jones in retirement – only freedom to do what he wants. He plans to do some writing, but acknowledges he will not be a match for his wife of 22 years and author, Kelly Jones.
“People actually like to read her stuff,” he said.
Jones says he’s considering writing books about U.S. military conflicts since Vietnam. “I think I will title it, ‘Lessons Not Learned from Vietnam.’ What bothered me in Vietnam, was we didn’t know who the adversary was, or what motivated them. It was the same in Iraq. Nobody knew the intent of the enemy and why we were going after them. So we got Saddam out, and it created other problems.”
It’s clear that retirement won’t mean we’ve heard the last of Jim Jones. Who knows? Maybe he’ll run the for U.S. Senate.