Federal Judge Robert E. Jones Ends His Courtroom Career at Age 95 After 59 Years on the Bench


The jury box was full. The desks for the prosecution and defense were occupied. The public gallery was packed.

When the judge entered the 10th floor courtroom in downtown Portland, he didn’t sit at the bench. He didn’t don his usual black robe.

Instead, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones, dressed in a light blue blazer and black slacks, came through a side door and the courtroom erupted in applause.

After 59 years on the bench, Jones, at age 95, is essentially retiring. Though he officially remains on active status, he no longer will preside over cases in a courtroom.

Jones served as a Multnomah County Circuit judge for 19 years and an Oregon Supreme Court justice for eight years before he was appointed to the federal bench in May 1990, where he has served for 32 years.

Fellow judges, lawyers, family and friends filled his courtroom last week to congratulate Jones on his long service, his dedication to the law and decades of teaching aspiring lawyers who later often ended up appearing to argue cases before him.

“Judge Jones is a giant. He has done this job with dignity and grace for decades,” Oregon’s Chief U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez told the crowd. “He is this district’s Iron Horse. I feel very, very privileged to have served on this bench with one of the greats.’’

Hernandez said he was in first grade when Jones first became a judge in 1963.

Jones, a Grant High School graduate who grew up in Portland, married his high school sweetheart Pearl, joined the U.S. Navy Reserves after graduation and rose to the level of captain. While working toward his bachelor of arts at the University of Hawaii, he worked as a marine underwriter and claims adjuster for the Home Insurance Company of Hawaii.

He planned to pursue a career in insurance until a fatal explosion occurred on a ship that his company insured. Jones met admiralty lawyers who flew in from San Francisco to represent the marine insurers, sparking his interest in law.

He returned to Portland and attended Northwestern School of Law, now Lewis & Clark Law School, at night, graduating in 1953. He worked as a trial lawyer and became a partner in the law firm Anderson, Franklin, Jones, Olsen and Bennett. He later served as president of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.

He took a short detour from law to run for political office, elected in 1963 to the state House. He served briefly until former Gov. Mark Hatfield appointed him that year to a judge’s seat on the Multnomah County Circuit Court.

While working as a judge, he also taught his favorite class in law school - evidence - at his alma mater, putting in about five hours a week for two decades.

“I don’t think there’s another person in this room who can think of any attorney who has made a greater contribution to the practice and understanding of the law in the entire history of the state of Oregon,” said attorney Larry Sokol of the Lake Oswego-based Sokol & Associates personal injury law firm.

As a young lawyer with questions about evidence, Sokol said he’d sometimes stop at Jones’ home where Jones would graciously counsel him and give him advice.

Retired federal prosecutor John Haub said Jones was his professor when he attended law school at night.

“We got the benefit of Judge Jones teaching us evidence law as he presided over trials,” he said. As a result, Jones made the law come alive for his students, he said.

In and outside the classroom, Jones liked to keep his students alert by frequently springing pop quizzes or pop questions on them, Haub said.

Attorney Philip Lewis recalled Jones’ wit as his professor at Lewis & Clark Law in 1977, when he advised students: “Never refer to a witness as a short witness. Call them a brief witness.’’

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Sussman, who also had Jones as an evidence professor and later appeared before him numerous times as a federal prosecutor, called Jones a “titan” who displayed a real love for the law and education.

“You tried so hard not to let him down, not to disappoint him,” Sussman said.

Fellow prosecutor Thomas Edmonds said Jones also came to court well-prepared, particularly in the complex drug cases he presided over involving multiple defendants.

Oregon Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay said the defense bar has always appreciated Jones’ evidence skills in the courtroom and “his no-nonsense way of getting to the crux of the matter.’’

Jones has been known to tell prosecutors to “keep it simple” and to “stop trying to prove too much,” Hay said.

“He’s also been direct and heartfelt with our clients, ordering at least one to ‘quit smoking’ as part of the sentence imposed (we objected, of course),” Hay recalled in an email. “We applaud and honor his astounding years of public service.”

Among some of Jones’ major rulings:

– In 1996, he refused to allow scientific testimony at trial that silicone breast implants caused various diseases because he said the evidence wasn’t convincing and didn’t support the claims. It marked one of the first attempts to implement a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering federal judges to keep unproven scientific evidence out of the courtroom.

Jones and New York’s U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who both oversaw numerous breast-implant cases, took the unusual step of appointing a national panel of experts to help sort out the scientific debate over the implants’ health effects.

The court-appointed panel’s findings formed the basis for thousands of cases settling against manufacturer Dow Corning.

In 1998, Dow Corning offered $3 billion to be disbursed over 16 years to 177,000 women with breast implants, part of a billion-dollar bankruptcy plan.

– In 1996, he approved a negotiated settlement for homeowners suing Louisiana-Pacific Corp. for its defective house siding. He agreed to a plan that granted homeowners recourse in arbitration if they didn’t like the terms they got from adjusters who examined their homes.

The arbitration was expected to cost the forest products company an extra $15 to $20 million on top of the minimum $275 million that it agreed to pay to settle the class-action claims.

– He oversaw the first Catholic priest sex-abuse case to go before a jury in Oregon. He oversaw mini-trials that were advisory and designed to help estimate the value of claims made by men who alleged the Rev. Donald Durand molested them in the 1970s and 1980s. The goal was to determine if the Portland Archdiocese’s $75 million bankruptcy plan had enough money set aside for unsettled claims.

– In 2008, he ruled that Steve Case, the co-founder and former chief executive officer of American Online Inc., didn’t use illegal insider information when he bought a Hawaii land company in 2000.

Descendants of Kauai missionaries had accused Case and his companies of obtaining confidential inside information for the $26 million purchase of shares in the Grover Farm Co., a former sugar plantation.

After two years of litigation, Jones found that the shareholders failed to prove their claims, dismissing more than $2.5 billion in damages sought against Case.

Grove Farm, founded by G.N. Wilcox in the 1800s, controlled thousands of acres and the largest shopping center on Kauai in 2000.

The case formed the basis of the movie “The Descendants” starring George Clooney.

— He presided over the “Portland Seven” cases, in which seven people were accused of aiding terrorists by conspiring to help al-Qaida and the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan.

The government convicted six of the Portland Seven for trying to make their way to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Two of them, Patrice Lumumba Ford and Jeffrey Leon Battle, were sentenced to 18-year prison terms.

– He presided over the so-called Sweetheart Swindle case, in which a man named Blancey Lee was convicted of conspiring to con Gaston tree farm heir Ralph Raines Jr. out of his $15 million family fortune as part of a plot with his lover and her daughter.

– The last complex case he handled was the three-week trial of FBI agent W. Joseph Astarita, who was accused of lying to conceal that he allegedly fired two shots at the truck of Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum” in January 2016. A jury acquitted Astarita on two counts of making a false statement and one count of obstruction of justice.

Jones’ son, Jeffrey Jones, a Clackamas County judge who at 67 joked that he certainly couldn’t retire before his father did, also teaches evidence now at Lewis & Clark Law School.

While his dad earned a nickname in court as “The Iceman,” his son assured those gathered to celebrate his father that the senior Jones was a loving parent to him and his sister and recently became a great grandparent.

Jeffrey Jones said his daughter gave birth to a girl on July 3.

“When my dad saw the baby, he did something I’ve never seen him do before,” he said, motioning how his father just put his hands together in front of him in silence. “He was speechless, if not breathless, and I’ve never seen him react that way before. But I can tell you, that in that moment, the Iceman melteth.”

Jeffrey Jones said he hopes that when people see the portrait of his father that now hangs in the 10th-floor courtroom, they’ll not only recognize Robert Jones for his immense legal service but also as a dedicated family man and father.

“It’s been a wonderful life, both in court and at home,” the elder Jones told the crowd. Smiling at his wife, he shared that the two just celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary.

The man who lettered in golf in high school has kept active. It wasn’t unusual for the judge in recent years to descend the courthouse stairwell 10 flights with his staff to exit the courthouse during a fire drill.

Jones said all his courtroom clerks have retired or are about to retire.

“I’m so grateful to each and every one for making life worthwhile,” he said, “and I hope I’ve done justice.”