Defense attorney a Buena Vista fixture for decades

By Leigh Dannhauser

In November 1985 Buena Vista faced one of the worst floods in its history. It was Election Day, and James Todd Jones was on the ballot for Rockbridge County commonwealth’s attorney.

“They had already announced they were moving the polls to the high school from the city building because the city building was in the flood land,” Jones recalled.

“I remember I came down 22nd,” he said. “I turned and hit the brakes and my headlights shone out over all this water that was sitting in downtown.”

Jones said he felt helpless. “I divided my time between going up to the polls and doing what I could there and talking to people and coming down and watching the city float away,” he said. “It was really heartbreaking.”

Jones said less people turned out to vote but it wouldn’t have mattered.

“I didn’t have much expectation of winning at that point because the previous commonwealth’s attorney had hired an assistant, and it was clear his assistant was going to be his heir apparent,” he said.

The “heir apparent” was Michael Irvine, who is now a judge in the Rockbridge County Circuit Court. “I mostly ran just to keep him honest,” Jones said, explaining that he ran to make sure Irvine “understood it was a public office and not a private office.”

Jones, 65, has been a fixture in Buena Vista for the past 34 years.

Originally from Michigan, he came to west-central Virginia in 1971 as a volunteer for Vista, an anti-poverty program, out of Roanoke. He returned six years later to open his law practice.

Jones has run for several elected offices, winning spots on the City Council and serving as mayor of Buena Vista.

These days Jones spends his time practicing law, with an emphasis on real estate. Like many other lawyers in town he has a mail cubby at the clerk’s office at the Rockbridge County Circuit Court.

Occasionally he finds a case file there for a defendant who needs a court-appointed attorney.

“I’m just a real estate attorney, but I still like doing a bit of courtroom work,” Jones said, explaining that he is not a public defender.

“Every lawyer is supposed to donate a certain amount of their time to doing that kind of work,” Jones said. “The judge spreads it around.”

Attorneys need to meet certain qualifications to perform court-appointed work.

According to the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, a court-appointed attorney in a misdemeanor trial must complete 10 hours of continuing legal education every other year. Four of the 10 hours must be concentrated on representing juveniles. To handle felony cases, lawyers must serve as lead counsel on four completed cases before they can get referrals from the court.

A qualified attorney is put on a list that is updated daily. Attorneys may fall off the list if they no longer continue their education.

Jones is not on the list anymore. He said court-appointed lawyers in Virginia aren’t paid well. He said he received $120 for District Court cases, and he earned $185 for misdemeanors and $445 for felonies in Circuit Court.

But Irvine still assigns cases to Jones. “He doesn’t care whether you’re on the list or not,” Jones said. “He’s going to give it to you.”

The best part about court-appointed cases, he said, is being in the courtroom.

“It involves a certain amount of strategy and cleverness,” Jones said.

He is winding down a career he never saw himself having.  When he went to the University of Michigan law school, he said, he wanted to join the Foreign Service. He passed a written exam in 1968 but failed the physical. He had a birth defect in his heart.

When he opened the doors of his law office in 1977, Jones said he didn’t think it would last. He said it’s hard to think about shutting down his practice, which includes three generations of clients.

The names on his files aren’t the only reminders of his past. When he opens his desk drawers, he finds silt—26 years after the flood.

Jones said he wants to stay busy.

“You spend 30 to 35 years becoming good at something,” he said. “You get good because you enjoy it, and you keep doing it because you enjoy it.”