Amid Shock, Recalling Judge’s Life of Service
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
Published: January 8, 2011
John M. Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, was fatally wounded in the attack near Tucson on Saturday that killed five others and wounded at least 18 people, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
“We’re all in kind of a state of shock here,” said Richard H. Weare, the clerk of the Federal District Court for Arizona, after hearing from the Federal Marshals Service, which confirmed the death.
President Obama praised Judge Roll as a jurist “who has served America’s legal system for almost 40 years.”
Judge Roll was appointed by the first President George Bush in 1991 and has been chief judge since 2006. His district is part of the sprawling Ninth Circuit, which covers federal courts throughout the West. He served as a state judge and as an assistant United States attorney for Arizona before he was appointed him to the federal bench.
The chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Alex Kozinski, described Judge Roll as a tireless advocate for his district: “Of all the chief judges of the circuit, I must say he was always the hardest working — always looking out for his district. He’ll be a great loss to his family, but he’ll also be a great loss to the federal judiciary.”
He said Judge Roll was a good friend who sought increased federal resources for his district, which had seen a surge in felony cases related to drugs and crime along the border with Mexico.
Judge Roll was no stranger to the risks of public service. He and his wife were provided protection by the Federal Marshals Service in 2009 in connection with a case in which a group of Mexicans sued an Arizona rancher for $32 million. They accused the rancher of civil right abuses for stopping people at gunpoint as they crossed his land and then turning them over to the Border Patrol.
After Judge Roll ruled that the case could go forward, he received death threats. Judge Roll told The Arizona Republic that the situation was “unnerving and invasive.”
When several of those making the threats were identified, he declined to press charges at the recommendation of the Marshals Service.
“I have a very strong belief that there is nothing wrong with criticizing a judicial decision,” he said. “But when it comes to threats, that is an entirely different matter.”
John McCarthy Roll was born in Pittsburgh and graduated from the University of Arizona in 1969 and the university’s law school in 1972. He is survived by his wife, Maureen, three sons and five grandchildren.
Killings of federal judges are rare. The last to be murdered in office was Judge Robert Vance, who was killed by a mail bomb at his home in Mountain Brook, Ala., in 1989.
On Dec. 21, Judge Roll sent an e-mail to Judge Kozinski with an attached letter from Ms. Giffords and another member of Congress from Arizona, Ed Pastor, a Democrat. The two members of Congress encouraged the Ninth Circuit to “declare a judicial emergency” to help cope with the increased workload by extending deadlines under the speedy trial act. In the e-mail, Judge Roll wrote that the Congressional letter was “unsolicited but very much appreciated.”
Judge Kozinski speculated — “just a guess,” he said — that Judge Roll might have gone to the event on Saturday to thank Ms. Giffords for the letter. “And he gets killed for it.”
Judge Kozinski added, “If it can happen to him, it can happen to any of us.”
In a statement, John G. Roberts Jr., the chief justice of the United States, said: ”We in the judiciary have suffered the terrible loss of one of our own. Judge John Roll was a wise jurist who selflessly served Arizona and the nation with great distinction.”
Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who lives in Arizona, said she was devastated by the news. “It is a horrible event, and heartbreaking,” she said. “The judge was just wonderful.”
“It sounds like something that might happen in some place like Afghanistan,” she said. “It shouldn’t happen in Tucson, Ariz., or anyplace else in the United States.”