Judge Theodore T. Jones, Jr. ’72, ‘07HON was laid to rest today after a funeral service at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Brooklyn. New York State lost a public servant of intense intellect, impeccable integrity, and deep compassion. St. John’s lost a dear friend. I was privileged to speak at his wake last night. Here is what I said.
When I think about Ted Jones, four words come to mind. The first is achievement. His was a life of remarkable achievement. Starting with his military achievement in Vietnam, and continuing on through a stellar legal career: as a Legal Aid lawyer, as a private criminal defense attorney, as an elected judge, as an administrative judge, and then as a Judge of the Court of Appeals and a leader in the bar. He was – by any measure – a great lawyer and a great judge.
But the other three words that come to mind when I think about Ted Jones have nothing to do with great achievements. Those words are humility, compassion, and service.
When you met Ted Jones, you wouldn’t have known that he was a great lawyer or a great judge. And that’s because he carried himself with such genuine humility – a humility that I believe grew out of his understanding of other people. It is impossible to be a criminal defense lawyer and not have a deep understanding of – and compassion for – the struggles that affect others’ lives. And Ted Jones’ compassion for others led him to a lifetime of service.
In 2007, we had the privilege of giving Judge Jones an honorary degree and having him as our commencement speaker at the Law School’s graduation. We first read the citation, which detailed all of his professional accomplishments. But when he took the podium, he didn’t talk to our graduating students about his great achievements; nor did he urge them on to great achievements themselves. Instead, he urged them on to a life of service. In particular, he urged them to serve the poor. He told them a story about an experience he had as a young lawyer. There was a brutal murder, and Ted Jones took on the defense pro bono, without a fee. He was convinced that his client was innocent; the authorities were just as convinced that his client was guilty. He worked on the case for two years, and after a grueling trial he won an acquittal for his client. And then he told our students – who were sitting in awe of the many accomplishments that had led him to the pinnacle of our profession – that helping that man was “the most memorable and gratifying experience” of his career.
That kind of compassionate service defined his work. You saw it in his work as a judge: in his opinions protecting the rights of individuals, particularly individuals accused of crimes. (Now that doesn’t mean he was a pushover – he knew how to be tough when the situation demanded it. Just look at how he stopped the 2005 transit strike.) You could also see that compassion in his work as a bar leader: whether it was tacking the issue of wrongful convictions or promoting the diversity that is so important to our profession.
For me, I could see his compassion most clearly in his service to St. John’s. At the Law School, he was instrumental – along with his good friend Judge Phil Roach – in founding the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development, which has done such great work promoting diversity in the legal profession. (I can only image what diversity initiatives Judge Jones and Judge Roach are planning together now.) And at the University, he served with dedication on our Board of Trustees, I used to remind him that he was my boss, because the governing authority for the University, the power to run the institution, resides with the Board of Trustees. And Judge Jones was happy to have that responsibility, but not because he wanted to be “the boss,” not because he wanted power, but because he loved St. John’s. And he loved St. John’s because he loved our students. His concern was always for our students.
In all his work, as a lawyer, as a judge, as a trustee – he devoted himself to serving others, with humility and compassion. And that’s why he’s not just a great lawyer and a great judge, but a great man.
I’ll end with a quote from the Bible that I think is particularly appropriate. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is talking to the scribes and the Pharisees – the lawyers and judges of his community – and he tells them: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And then he gives them an instruction: “The greatest among you must be your servant.”
In his life, Ted Jones followed that instruction. In our lives, we have been blessed to have such a great man as our servant. And today in our sorrow, we can take comfort in our confidence that this humble man is now exalted in the presence of the Lord. Amen.