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Federal judge to leave bench to head Dickinson College

May 14, 2021 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The federal judge who outlawed “intelligent design” from being taught in public schools and struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage will leave the bench to become the president at Dickinson College, the school said Friday.

John E. Jones III, the chief judge of the U.S. Middle District of Pennsylvania, will resign this summer to take a two-year term as interim president of the Carlisle-based Dickinson.

Jones, 65, graduated from Dickinson in 1977 and chairs the school’s board of trustees. Members approached him about serving as the interim president after Margee M. Ensign, the current president, notified them that she would be leaving, he said.

It was a difficult decision to leave the bench, Jones said.

“It took me a couple of days to really get my brain around it and I concluded that it was such an outstanding opportunity that it made perfect sense to do it,” Jones said in an interview.

After serving on the college’s board for almost 13 years and chairing it for four years, Jones said he won’t need a lot of on-the-job training.

“I’m pretty much 24-7 Dickinson when I’m not a federal judge,” he said.

Ensign will resign June 30, and return to Nigeria to become president of American University of Nigeria, the post she held before becoming president of Dickinson in 2017, the school said.

Jones was appointed to the federal bench by then-President George W. Bush in 2002, after serving as chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board under then-Gov. Tom Ridge.

In 2005, Jones barred Dover School District in southern Pennsylvania from teaching “intelligent design” in biology class, saying the concept is creationism in disguise and unconstitutional. The ruling resounded across the county, and was one of the biggest courtroom clashes between faith and evolution since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.

In 2014, Jones threw out Pennsylvania’s ban on gay marriage, a decision that made same-sex matrimony legal throughout the state, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal across the nation. Jones’ decision took effect immediately, setting off celebrations across Pennsylvania, as marriage applications began flooding in to county offices within hours.

“We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history,” Jones wrote in his decision.

Jones also had a front-row seat to Pennsylvania’s state government’s biggest corruption cases in recent years.

He sentenced two former state treasurers, Rob McCord and Barbara Hafer, and John Estey, a one-time chief of staff to former Gov. Ed Rendell. Estey had become ensnared in an FBI corruption sting after leaving the Rendell administration and went on to record his conversations for federal investigators for years.

Jones also threw out the charges in the related bribery trial of a wealthy suburban Philadelphia investment adviser, Richard Ireland. Ireland’s trial had hinged on four days of testimony and hours of recordings by McCord, who had taped conversations for the FBI as Pennsylvania’s sitting treasurer before resigning and pleading guilty to two extortion counts in 2015.

Still, the Ireland trial motivated Jones at the time to slam Pennsylvania’s campaign finance laws, which he said allow “unbridled and unlimited” contributions from people who want business from the state.

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter