James Fred Jones (1907–1991)

J. Fred Jones was a farmer, laborer, lawyer, and populist politician who aspired to be a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court and made it in 1967 after his third race for the position. His ten years on the bench, begun as he approached retirement age, were marked by sympathy for underdogs, workers, and educators. He found that the law nearly always sided with them rather than their adversaries. 

James Fred Jones—he went by “J. Fred”—was born on January 12, 1907, on a Ouachita Mountain farm near Mount Ida in Montgomery County. His children described his childhood home as so remote and untamed that a mountain lion once crashed through the roof of the house. His parents were Ira S. Jones and Ella Tyler Jones.  

Jones attended Montgomery County’s rural schools and walked to Russellville (Pope County) in 1930 to enroll at Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University but then a two-year college that focused on agriculture and teacher training). Then he worked his way through the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he met and married Lorea Hoback of Green Forest (Carroll County), who became a teacher, home economist, and county demonstration agent. They reared two sons and a daughter. 

In 1934, while he was still in law school during the Great Depression, Jones was elected state representative from Montgomery County and served three terms in the Arkansas General Assembly. For two years, he was a deputy prosecuting attorney, a part-time job for lawyers in rural communities like Mount Ida. Little Rock (Pulaski County) was a better locus for both their careers, and the Joneses moved there in 1942. Jones was Little Rock’s first traffic judge. 

In 1948 and 1962, when seats on the Supreme Court became open, Jones ran in the Democratic primaries and lost both times to better-known and better-financed attorneys George Rose Smith and J. Frank Holt. In 1966, when four of the court’s seven seats became open, he ran again, against a prominent Little Rock lawyer, and won. 

Jones’s modest campaign advertising listed the following qualifications: farmer, railroad section hand, sawmill laborer, refinery worker, highway  and bridge construction hand, elementary school teacher, high school principal, and claims adjuster—all jobs that he had held from a few weeks to a year while he pursued an education or to supplement the sparse legal work of small-town lawyering. He was endorsed by the state AFL-CIO 

“I have watched the labor movement grow up and come of age in Arkansas,” Jones said. “I believe that all men are equal under the law and are equally entitled to its protection.” In much of the state, union support hurt a candidate more than it helped, but Jones eked out a victory. 

On the court, with two men who had defeated him, he performed with quiet dignity in the private conferences that largely make up the court’s deliberations. He never engaged in the heated arguments that some issues caused but instead was likely to share a funny but lengthy story that broke the tension. “The best-natured man on the court,” Chief Justice Carleton Harris said of him when Jones retired. 

But he could be quietly obstreperous on significant political issues. That was the case when the court was confronted in 1967, soon after Jones was sworn in, with one of the most controversial legal questions of the century—whether teachers could discuss human evolution in Arkansas classrooms. A biology teacher at Little Rock’s Central High School sued the state to strike down the 1928 initiated act that made teaching evolutionary theory in science classes a criminal offense. Chief Justice Harris worried that the issue was so volatile that the court needed to be unanimous to preserve the court’s standing with the public. In conference, the justices split four to three in favor of upholding the law, with Jones, Smith, and Justice Lyle Brown dissenting. Jones joined a strong opinion written by Brown that said the law violated the establishment and free-speech clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and also the state constitution. For much of the year, until the last week of the 1967 term, Harris would not release the decision. On the last day, Smith and Jones agreed to drop their dissent if the lengthy majority opinion written by Justice John A. Fogleman defending the statute was scrapped. The decision was a brief percuriam order upholding the law with no explanation of the legal reasoning. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Epperson v. Arkansas, overturned the state court’s decision the next year.  

After retiring from the court in 1977, Jones ran for Congress in the Third Congressional District, the seat then held by Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt. Jones’s platform was support for a treaty with Russia to destroy all nuclear weapons and an end to U.S. supplies of weapons and money to dictators around the world. Jones, who was seventy-five years old, spent no money and did not win the Democratic nomination.   

Jones died of cancer on March 5, 1991. He is buried in Forest Hills Memorial Park in Alexander (Pulaski and Saline counties). 

For additional information:
Harris, Peggy. “J. Fred Jones, 84, Former Justice, Dies; He Served on State Supreme Court 10 Years.” Arkansas Gazette, March 7, 1991, p. 4B. 

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 05/05/2021

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