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New York leaders mourn Judge Jones

New York Court of Appeals Judge Theodore Jones Jr., pictured here during an event on Monday at Monroe Community College focusing on diversity in the courts, died of an apparent heart attack upon his return to the New York City area this week. Vasiliy Baziuk

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing two vacancies on New York’s top court following the death Monday of Judge Theodore T. Jones Jr., just hours after he left Rochester.

The state Commission on Judicial Nomination had already started the review process to fill the upcoming vacancy of Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, who is retiring at the end of the year, having reached the maximum service age of 70.

Court officials said Tuesday that Judge Jones suffered an apparent heart attack Monday night at home in Rockland County.

“Judge Jones was a jurist of great talent, intellect and compassion,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said in a statement. “He was also the gentlest of men with a wonderful sunny disposition, great warmth and empathy for all.”

Judge Jones, the only African-American on the Court of Appeals, was in Rochester on Monday for several events related to increasing diversity, particularly in jury recruitment. He attended two Monroe Community College programs, at the Damon City and Brighton campuses, as part of its first Democracy Day.

“Ted Jones had a smile and a laugh that captivated the court and the entire legal community,” Judge Lippman said. “His achievements as a judge, a lawyer and a human being could not be more noteworthy. He served his country with honor and distinction during the Vietnam War and that experience was so much a part of who he was a person.”

Cuomo called Judge Jones a tireless advocate for equal justice who inspired many through his public service and work outside the judiciary.

“His contributions to New York’s highest court will be sorely missed,” Cuomo said. “We join his family and friends in mourning his loss.”

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said New York state lost a jurist of keen intellect and profound compassion

“During his many years of service on the bench, Judge Jones was a model of fairness, justice and legal excellence,” he said in a statement. “In particular, his work co-chairing the Justice Task Force to examine and help prevent the causes of wrongful convictions was exceptional. It reflected a profound commitment to improving our state’s criminal justice system.”

Judge Jones became a state Supreme Court Justice in his hometown of Brooklyn in 1990 and joined the Court of Appeals in 2007 after being nominated by Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Judge Jones was co-chairman of the court’s task force on wrongful convictions, which recommended videotaping police interrogations, steps to prevent suggestive police lineups for witnesses and expanding defense access to DNA evidence. He also chaired the court’s diversity committee.

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore, who co-chaired the task force, said members, who included defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges, had many divergent opinions.

“The judge was brilliant in bringing people together, trying to find common ground to move forward and advance the work we were doing,” she said. “In the justice community, we’re really going to miss him.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, called Judge Jones “a distinguished jurist, veteran and longtime public servant” and offered condolences to his family on behalf of district attorneys across the state.

“Ted was not only defined by his exemplary career in the courtroom, but as a man loved by everyone privileged to know and work with him for his kindness and decency to all,” Vance said. “His loss will be acutely felt by the state’s highest court and the entire legal community.”

Judge Jones was born on March 10, 1944. His mother was a teacher and his father worked on the Long Island Railroad, becoming a station master.

Judge Jones graduated from Hampton University in Virginia and joined the U.S. Army in 1967, serving in Vietnam and reaching the rank of captain. He graduated from St. John’s University School of Law in 1972. He worked at the Legal Aid Society, focusing on criminal defense work, and in private practice. He was elected twice to the state Supreme Court.

Jones’ best-known case was the New York City transit strike in 2005, where Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union defied his injunction and shut down the city’s subways and buses for 60 hours shortly before Christmas. He fined the union $1 million a day for violating the state’s Taylor Law that prohibits public employees from striking. He sent union President Roger Toussaint to jail for four days for contempt of court.

Last November, Judge Jones authored the Court of Appeals decision rejecting the challenge to state economic development grants brought by a taxpayer group affiliated with the tea party movement, which had wanted companies to return billions of taxpayer dollars to the state. Public benefit corporations, including New York’s Economic State Development Corp., aren’t subject to the constitutional prohibition against giving state funds to private companies and can use state money for designated public purposes, he wrote for the 6-1 majority.

He is survived by his wife, Joan, and sons, Wesley Jones and Theodore T. Jones III, an attorney.