U alum slated for U.S. attorney post

by Sarah McKenzie

B. Todd Jones has come a long way since his days of reading at the University Law Library and shopping at the North Country Co-Op.
A 1983 graduate of the University’s Law School, Jones received the thumbs-up from U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone last month to take on the position of U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
The president usually nominates the individual selected by the state’s senator from the same party. Jones, 41, currently serves as the acting U.S. attorney.
Although Jones said he cannot absolutely count on the position, he anticipates his confirmation with eager optimism.
“This is a dream job,” Jones said of the position responsible for all federal prosecution decisions in the District of Minnesota. The U.S. attorney has jurisdiction over civil lawsuits against the federal government and federal criminal violations.
If confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the fall, Jones would become the first African-American U.S. attorney in Minnesota history.
Jon Hopeman, one of Jones’ law professors, said his former student is equipped with the necessary experience to tackle the new position. Hopeman directed the University’s civil trial simulation program and instructed a legal ethics course from 1976 to 1983.
“He doesn’t have a political agenda. And he has a vast reservoir of common sense,” Hopeman said.
Jones’ varied legal experiences make him a unique candidate for the position of U.S. attorney. Background in private practice for both large and small firms, civil and criminal trial experience and his previous work in federal court provide the skills necessary for his new job, Jones said.
Hopeman also worked with Jones in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He was the first assistant to the U.S. attorney and Jones’ immediate supervisor. Hopeman now practices law with a private Minneapolis firm, Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon & Vogt.
“This a job that draws flack and you have to ignore the ankle biters,” Hopeman said.
Morale has been down in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Jones has the right formula to pull spirits up, Hopeman said.
His best friend of the past eighteen years and former law school peer, Lyonel Norris, said Jones is the most clear-thinking person he has ever met.
Norris works as a state public defender and said the relationship between prosecutors and defense lawyers is often antagonistic. But not even defense attorneys can find bad things to say about Jones, he said.
“He has an innate sense of fairness,” Norris said. “He is very morally grounded.”
Jones grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, but the Twin Cities lured him away from his hometown more than 20 years ago. The international reputation and urban environment of Macalester College attracted Jones to St. Paul.
An internship with Hubert H. Humphrey as an undergraduate propelled Jones into a promising legal career. Along with other interns, Jones worked on several local policy issues and tackled larger, national matters like Social Security.
With his wife, Margaret, Jones moved to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, and he started attending law school at the University in 1980.
“Those were good times,” Jones said. “We lived right by Sgt. Preston’s and shopped at the co-op on Cedar-Riverside.”
Although the college community proved enjoyable, law school classes were not so lighthearted, Jones said.
Unlike some students’ undergraduate years, he said, law students had to come to class prepared every day, regardless of harsh winter conditions. Despite the weather, he managed to earn his degree and intern at Hennepin County during the summer.
Jones secured a job directly after graduation with the Marine Corps as a judge advocate.
“That was quite a change after law school. All of a sudden you are in boot camp,” Jones said. He remained on active duty until 1989, working on a whole range of legal issues, some civil, some criminal.
Besides gaining invaluable trial experience, Jones traveled to Japan and Southern California with the Marines.
Jones joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in February 1992. He actively worked with former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug to formulate the Minnesota HEALS program, a partnership between area businesses, law enforcement officials and community leaders. The cooperative began addressing gang violence and the high murder rate in Minneapolis last year.
As for his vision for the new position, Jones said he plans to continue with efforts like Minnesota HEALS, which help communities provide young people with positive alternatives.
Jones said he hopes to focus his efforts on programs like HEALS, which address the living conditions of impoverished neighborhoods like the Phillips community as the first step in crime reduction.
“I just want to make sure neighborhoods are safe,” Jones said.