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Terror judge: Bring on the big questions

Portland Seven case will focus national spotlight on 'dull' Judge Robert Jones

U.S. District Judge Robert Jones still remembers the first criminal case he tried nearly 40 years ago.

As a newly appointed Multnomah County circuit judge, Jones worked hard to avoid making any mistakes. He even spent hours writing his jury instructions and rehearsing them in front of a mirror.

'Then, when the actual time came, I ended up saying, 'The jury can retire to the guilty room,' ' he recalled.

Now 76, at an age when many of his peers are out fishing, Jones is presiding over what is widely seen as a test of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

The so-called Portland Seven case, in which seven Muslims are charged with conspiring to wage war on America, may allow Jones to determine how the federal government prosecutes suspected terrorists for years to come.

The trial is scheduled to begin in January. Before then, Jones will have to rule on a series of defense motions challenging the constitutionality of the laws being used against the defendants, the admissibility of evidence gathered by secretive federal intelligence agencies and whether the Bush administration is unfairly targeting Muslims for their religious beliefs.

With his silver hair and quiet manner, Jones does not look like the kind of person who welcomes controversy. He even describes himself as 'dull.'

But in fact, during his more than 40 years as a county, state and federal judge, Jones has been deeply involved in some of the nation's hottest issues.

His rulings are the reason that it's so hard for local authorities to regulate adult businesses, that the state's Native Americans can legally take peyote in religious ceremonies and that anti-abortion activists can't circulate 'wanted' posters of doctors who perform abortions.

And Jones already has gone head-to-head with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who declared the initial Portland conspiracy indictments to be a 'defining day' in the government's war on terrorism. In a decision currently on appeal, Jones prevented Ashcroft from invalidating the Oregon law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to commit suicide.

Courthouse observers say Jones is perfect for the terror case challenge, which will involve reviewing hundreds of hours of audio recordings and reading more than 10,000 pages of documents. He is a recognized expert on evidence law who is not afraid to set precedents or rule against the government in high-profile cases.

Jones 'is very strong and independent,' said Stanley Cohen, the outspoken New York attorney who represented Sheik Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye on immigration fraud charges. 'He won't be intimidated by the government.'

Portland attorney Jack Faust has known Jones for more than four decades.

'If he had been the judge, the O.J. Simpson trial would have been over in a month,' Faust said. 'He would have made both sides organize their cases, whittle them down to the basics, and got it done.'

Not everyone thinks so highly of Jones, however. Portland anti-abortion protester Paul deParrie accuses Jones of deliberately seeking out high-profile cases to make a name for himself.

'He's a monument builder. He looks for opportunities to put his name in lights. He wants to go down in history,' said deParrie, who testified in support of other anti-abortion activists in a trial over which Jones presided several years ago.

For Jones' part, he is attracted to the complex legal issues involved in such major cases. At the same time, he said, he still worries about making mistakes when the stakes are high, recounting one episode in his federal courtroom a few years ago:

'A lawyer asked one of the witnesses whether she'd been truthful in her (pretrial) deposition. She replied, 'That depends how you define truthfully.' I said, 'Hold on a minute, this isn't a Clinton disposition.' I had to tell the jury to disregard my comments.'

Work docket stays full

At his age, Jones could spend most of his time away from the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in downtown Portland. As a senior judge, he is entitled to cut his workload by 75 percent and to choose to preside over relatively easy cases. That would give him more time to spend with his wife of 55 years, Pearl, in their Lake Oswego home and with their two children, Jeff and Julie, both of whom live in the Portland area.

Instead, Jones keeps a schedule that would exhaust many. Not only is he carrying a full load of complex cases, he also is co-writing books on federal trial procedures and lecturing at continuing education courses for lawyers throughout the western United States.

'He has always had a tremendously high energy level,' said son Jeff, a Canby lawyer.

Born and raised in Portland, Jones attended public schools and graduated from Grant High School, where he lettered in golf. One of his most vivid memories is beating Bunny Mason, now the pro at the Columbia Edgewater golf course, in sudden death in the Oregon prep golf championships in 1945.

'I'm more of a bogey golfer now,' he said.

Jones began dating his future wife, Pearl Jensen, when the two were in high school. They were engaged when Jones was 17, shortly before he joined the Navy as a U.S. Merchant Marine cadet midshipman near the end of World War II.

The two married in 1948 and moved to Hawaii, where Jones earned a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Hawaii while working as a marine insurance agent. When a large pineapple tug blew up and sank, a small army of maritime lawyers came in to settle the case.

'I talked to them, and I really got excited about the law,' he said.

The couple moved back to Portland so that he could attend the Lewis & Clark College Northwestern School of Law. He earned his law degree in 1953, passed the Oregon State Bar exam and went to work for what was then the city's biggest law firm, Anderson, Franklin, Jones, Olsen & Bennett.

Jones and his family moved into their Lake Oswego home 40 years ago. Neighbor Richard Bohm describes him as a good friend with only one small drawback:

'His wife absolutely prohibits him from using power tools. So when he needs something like that done around his house, he'll come over with a twinkle in his eye and say, 'What do you think about such-and-such?' What he really means is, 'Will you help me with this?' '

A slow start in Salem

After nearly a decade of trying a wide variety of cases, Jones decided to run for the Oregon House of Representatives in 1962 because he saw 'a lot of bad laws on the books.'

Jones was elected but said he did not accomplish much during the 1963 session. He was called up for military reserve duty before it ended. 'I had the most undistinguished career in the history of the Legislature,' he said. 'I didn't pass a single bill.'

After the call-up ended, then Gov. Mark Hatfield asked Jones if he would fill a vacancy on the Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Jones jumped at the appointment. 'The thing about being a judge is, you can have a challenging job and still see your family,' he said.

Jones served as a circuit court judge for 20 years, presiding over thousands of civil and criminal trials.

In 1983, then Gov. Vic Atiyeh appointed him to fill a vacancy on the Oregon Supreme Court.

During the next seven years, Jones and fellow Supreme Court Judge Richard Unis authored a series of rulings that became the basis for the current laws governing the admissibility of trial evidence. Because of that, Jones is regarded within legal circles as the co-author of the Oregon Evidence Code.

Perhaps Jones' best-known ruling came in the case of State of Oregon v. Henry. The ruling has been widely interpreted as preventing local governments from regulating the location of adult businesses. Jones insisted that the issues at stake in the case were far more important than zoning regulations, however.

'That's been misinterpreted,' he said. 'It wasn't about pornography, it was about censorship. The Oregon Constitution provides no censorship for adults. The writers were a very independent group who didn't believe anything adults wrote or read should be censored.'

The first President Bush appointed Jones to the U.S. District Court for Oregon in 1990. He was recommended by then U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood, who said the nomination was initially opposed by Capitol Hill conservatives because of an Oregon Supreme Court decision that Jones had written allowing Native Americans to use peyote in religious ceremonies.

'The conservatives had trouble with the peyote ruling,' Packwood said. 'They didn't want a liberal like that on the court. I went to (Bush chief of staff) John Sununu with Jones' record and showed him that the peyote opinion was a unanimous one and that Jones had only been assigned to write it. I wouldn't say I pressured Sununu, but I had to lean on him to get the nomination through.'

Going up against Ashcroft

To Jones, serving as a federal trial judge is a dream job.

'It's got everything. We can try cases, write opinions, there's always drama, and you don't have to answer to anyone,' he said.

During the past 13 years, Jones has presided over many major trials, including the case that pitted him against Ashcroft.

After Oregon voters approved a ballot initiative allowing doctors to prescribe drugs to people who want to commit suicide, Ashcroft said the U.S. Justice Department would prosecute any doctor who complied for violating federal laws regulating controlled substances.

The initiative's supporters sued Ashcroft to prevent him from carrying through. Jones agreed with the supporters and invalidated Ashcroft's directive in April 2002. The case is now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

'For a lifelong Republican appointed by a Republican, that took a lot of integrity,' said Portland attorney Barnes Ellis, who has known Jones for more than 30 years.

Jones made another significant ruling in a class-action suit filed by women who suffered health problems after receiving silicone breast implants. In that case, both sides offered numerous scientific authorities and medical studies to support their claims. Jones appointed his own panel of independent experts to evaluate the research. They found no scientific basis to believe that the implants caused health problems, and Jones ruled accordingly.

One of the most contentious cases that Jones handled was Planned Parenthood's suit against a handful of anti-abortion activists who were publishing imitation 'wanted' posters of doctors who perform abortions. After a number of doctors were physically attacked, Planned Parenthood sued the activists, claiming that the posters amounted to threats.

In the end, Jones not only ruled in favor of Planned Parenthood but essentially expanded the claims to include the Nuremberg Files, a Web site that listed the names and home addresses of the doctors. As a result of Jones' ruling, the site's server stopped hosting it.

Anti-abortion activist deParrie called Jones' ruling 'outrageous,' claiming it was more political than legal. 'He had an agenda, and he pushed it.'

Although Jones would not discuss specific cases, he denied he had any political agenda, saying he just 'follows the law.'

Portland attorney Eli Stutsman believes that Jones' adherence to following 'the law' will help him meet the challenges inherent in the Portland Seven case. Stutsman represented the physician and pharmacist who filed suit in the suicide case against Ashcroft. He said Jones resolved similar issues in that case.

'There were emotional, faith-based and political issues in our case, but Jones kept the trial focused on the narrow issue of the interpretation of federal law,' Stutsman said.