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Until recently, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III knew nothing about intelligent design. But after a six-week bench trial with heaps of expert testimony and more evidentiary exhibit books than there is time to digest, Jones is up to speed, to say the least. In some sense, he may never catch up. “I’m still getting amicus [curiae] filings,” he said last week. Last year, Jones was assigned Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, by luck of the draw, the day after it was filed Dec. 14 in federal court in Harrisburg, Pa. Eleven parents in Dover, Pa., objected to a statement about intelligent design that the public school board included in high school biology classes. Intelligent design is the claim that evolution by itself can’t explain the complexity of certain features of living things. Behind the 20-foot-long bench from which Jones presided, exhibit books were stacked thigh-high, taking up so much space that he couldn’t move. Jones and the judge he shared the courtroom with joked about what to do with the reams of paper once the trial ended. “We’d get a Waste Management truck and dump everything out of the window,” he said, chuckling at the thought of green and white trash rigs in court. During the trial, Jones’ keen sense of humor was a welcome distraction for the lawyers, witnesses and observers — relieving those exhausted by hours of scientific testimony. He tries to run a “friction-free, friendly” court, he said. “I have to watch I don’t turn the courtroom into ‘My Cousin Vinny’ or anything,” Jones said, conjuring Joe Pesci’s drollery in a conservative Alabama courtroom. “At times a well-placed quip can diffuse the tension in a courtroom for the parties and the jury. It can also let the lawyers know they need to lighten up a bit.” The trial, which concluded Nov. 4, was possibly the Middle District of Pennsylvania’s largest trial ever, by Jones’ estimation. His ruling could be the first to interpret the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design in public school science classes. Critics say such instruction violates the First Amendment because intelligent design attributes certain natural systems to the design of a superhuman, possibly supernatural, agent. Jones immediately recognized the case was an issue of first impression. What he couldn’t have predicted was the media circus that assembled on the front steps of the federal building at Third and Walnut streets in Harrisburg, he said. Through the windows nine floors up, some days Jones and his staff could see a half-dozen television news vans stationed on the block below. Media reports appeared in news outlets from Milan to Sydney. “It became somewhat surreal,” he said. He found it amusing that every day the lawyers stumped on the courthouse steps after trial adjourned for the day. He could glimpse the press gaggle surrounding them as he pulled out of the federal building’s garage, heading home to Pottsville, Pa., 60 miles away. The magnitude of it all hit him while watching the “NBC Nightly News” during the trial’s first week. A sketch of him in court flashed on the screen, and Jones and his wife looked at one another — shocked. “That set the tone. I was on the ‘Nightly News.’” After the first week, Jones said, he got used to the journalists scribbling and the comings and goings of spectators in court. On the trial’s last day, he told those gathered how struck he was by the solemnity and respect demonstrated by the parties, attorneys and court observers. No outbursts, no back-biting from the lawyers — nothing that he was warned might happen. “It was remarkable given the notoriety of the case and the protracted nature of the trial how pleasant the opposing counsel were to each other,” he said last week. Jones did have some inkling of the press the intelligent design case would bring to town. Early on he consulted the district court clerk to devise ways of accommodating them. Local reporters could sit in the jury box, a live audio feed was piped into a designated “press room” and the court’s Web site linked to a Kitzmiller page with updates on the trial schedule. Jones became adept at dealing with the press while chairing the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board during “some fairly controversial times” in the late 1990s when former Gov. Tom Ridge failed in his attempt to privatize the state liquor industry. “I was always accommodating to a fault and accessible to the press,” he said. “Not all judges have that instinct.” In recent weeks Jones has granted interviews to the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times. He turned down the BBC because producers wanted to discuss the merits of the case — which he won’t do.

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