PLAINS TWP. — The federal judge who overturned Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage Tuesday said he has had “an interesting month” since rendering his decision.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, speaking to a large group of attorneys and judges at Pocono Downs at Mohegan Sun, said he has learned from this decision and other somewhat controversial decisions.
Jones ruled May 20 to overturn Pennsylvania’s ban on gay marriage, a decision that legalized same-sex unions throughout the Northeast and resulted in couples rushing to get their marriage licenses.
In an Associated Press story on the day after the decision, Jones called the plaintiffs — a widow, 11 couples and one couple’s teenage daughters — “courageous” for challenging the constitutionality of the ban passed by lawmakers in 1996.
Jones, a Republican from Pottsville, was appointed to the federal bench by former President George W. Bush.
A day after Jones’ decision, Gov. Tom Corbett said he would not appeal it, ending the fight to prevent same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania.
Jones addressed members of the Wilkes-Barre Law & Library Association and Lackawanna Bar Association at Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court Appellate CLE Program. Also appearing at the forum at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs were Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Correale Stevens, Superior Court Judge Jack Panella and Luzerne County President Judge Thomas Burke.
Jones said he also ruled in the intelligent design case in 2005 — Kitzmiller v. Dover School District — ruling that a mandate to teach the topic was unconstitutional.
Jones, Stevens and Panella discussed how judges interpret laws passed by Congress and the state legislature. Stevens, a former state representative, district attorney, trial judge and president judge of the state Superior Court, was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2013.
Stevens discussed how judges decide cases based on the spirit of the law and how legislators differ in the way they prepare, propose and write legislation.
“Sometimes, the legislature and the courts really don’t understand each other,” he said.
Stevens also discussed other aspects of how legislative bills become laws, such as pressure from lobbyists and the ever-present political under-current.
Burke gave a recap of how he and his fellow county judges, along with the cooperation of attorneys, have worked diligently to regain the public trust in the years after the county corruption scandal.
“There is no ‘I’ in team,” Burke began. “Many in this room were around when calamity struck our courts. We developed a strategic plan and we strive every day to regain the public trust in the courts.”
Burke said he has also had to wage an “ever ongoing budget battle” to ensure the courts run smoothly. He said that when he took over as president judge, there was a backlog of 409 cases on the county docket. He said as of Tuesday, the caseload is at 192.
“The numbers tell the tale,” he said.
Burke said he has restructured the courts, assigning four judges to criminal cases, four to civil, one splitting half and half of criminal and civil and one in family court. He said one senior judge handles family cases and one is in criminal court.
“It’s refreshing to me when I go to the grocery store to hear someone in the checkout line tell me to keep up the good work,” Burke said.
Stevens, in his introduction of Burke, noted Burke and the county judges have earned the respect of jurists statewide.
“Judge Burke certainly was the right man for the job,” Stevens said.