Prelaw Society hosts U.S. District Court and FISA judge
The Prelaw Society at Radford University hosted James P. Jones, a U.S. District Court Judge for the Western District of Virginia. In addition to Judge Jones’ normal docket, he currently has an appointment on the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC or FISA Court) in Washington, D.C.
“I’m so excited to be here,” Jones said. “My mother went to Radford, but she didn’t graduate. It was during the Depression and she was needed back on the farm. She always spoke of her fond memories at Radford University.”
Criminal Justice Assistant Professor and Prelaw Advisor Luke William Hunt served as a law clerk for Judge Jones prior to working as a FBI special agent. The standing-room-only event had Jones discussing his experience as a judge in the Western District of Virginia, plea agreements and his experience on the FISA Court. Jones also took questions from students.
Clerking for a federal judge gave Jones the inspiration and desire to become a federal judge someday, he said.
“There’s no easy path to becoming a federal judge,” Jones said. “You have to be in the right place at the right time.”
In the late 1970s, a vacancy in the Western District led Jones to be recommended by Virginia’s United States Senators. Jones was originally nominated by President Jimmy Carter but did not make it through the process before the next Presidential Election. But 16 years later, Jones was nominated by President Bill Clinton. This time, Jones made it through the process and was confirmed by the Senate in July of 1996.
Jones described being nominated twice to the chance of being struck twice by lightning.
“We all have disappointments and everyone is going to have them in their lives,” Jones said. “Not being confirmed the first time worked out well for me. I got to continue to practice law and I got into elected politics, where I was elected as a state senator.”
Even so, Jones distinctly remembers when he was confirmed as a District Court judge.
“At about 11 p.m., with the Senate chamber empty minus a single senator and the presiding officer, my name was read and there was no objection. I was confirmed,” he said.
Jones explained how few District Court judges are in the United States when he told the audience that there are more active NFL players than District Court judges: There are fewer than 1,700 Federal District judges for the 96 U.S. District Courts.
As a District Court judge, Jones’ essential duty is to try federal civil and criminal cases, some with a jury and some without. Federal District judges do not have any jurisdiction of domestic litigation, as that is left up to the individual states.
Most of the criminal cases Jones hears – approximately 95 percent – have the defendant either accepting a plea agreement or pleading guilty to the crimes. Jones said the courts rely on the system, as “the resources are simply not there to have every defendant go to trial.”
Another appointment for Jones is on the FISA Court, where he was nominated by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for a seven-year term. The FISA Court is composed of 11 District judges and receives requests for surveillance relating to international terrorism and foreign intelligence activities.
“A lot of them come from the FBI to conduct surveillance – electronic, physical or both – of foreign counterintelligence matters,” Jones said. “We divide up the year and serve as the duty judge in a rotation. I spend my weeks reviewing documents from the Department of Justice for surveillance of particular targets. It’s all secret and highly classified.
“The question is usually whether or not there is probable cause that this person is engaged in foreign intelligence, terrorism or other violations of criminal law relating to national security,” Jones explained.
Kelvin Gravely Jr, a senior from Martinsville, Virginia and president of the Prelaw Club, appreciated hearing the perspective of someone on the FISA Court.
“With a secret court, especially in the news media, you hear lots of different angles,” Gravely said. “Hearing from someone on the court himself was really beneficial.”
Questions asked by the students covered the topics of recommendations for law school, types of work undertaken by Jones, ethnic and racial disparity in prisons, wiretapping under the Patriot Act and percentage of denied FISA applications.
Hunt believed that the students enjoyed hearing from a current FISA judge.
“I thought the question regarding balancing civil liberties and national security was excellent,” he said. “In a world in which deadly terrorist attacks seem to occur with increasing frequency, there is often a temptation to depart from constitutional norms that protect civil liberties. But departing from those norms risks losing our country’s identity. Judge Jones helped students understand that the FISA Court represents an attempt to strike a balance in terms of protecting both national security and individual liberties.”