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Arizona's Judge John Roll remembered as a model of fairness

Federal Judge John Roll, killed in the Tucson shootings, got many death threats during an immigration case. But lawyers on both sides say he was fair and professional.

January 13, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • Judge John M. Roll had stopped by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' event to thank her for her help in dealing with an overcrowded court docket.
Judge John M. Roll had stopped by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' event to… (9th Circuit Court )

Reporting from Washington — Judge John M. Roll became the target of death threats two years ago when he presided over the case of "the illegal immigrants vs. the vigilante rancher," as it was known on talk radio. Despite the intense hostility, lawyers on both sides agreed the judge was a model of fairness.

Roger Barnett, a rancher along the border, had been sued by 16 illegal immigrants who said he had accosted them at gunpoint when they walked near a state highway. They alleged that he kicked them and threatened them with dogs, leaving them in fear for their lives. For perhaps the first time, a federal judge would decide whether people in this country illegally could sue their alleged assailants under civil rights laws.

A funeral for Roll, one of the victims of last weekend's mass shooting in Tucson, will be held Friday. A devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, he was known as a conservative man with a reputation as being serious and professional in the courtroom, but lighthearted and smiling off the bench.

Roll, 63, grew up in Arizona and was educated at the University of Arizona and its law school. He served as a city prosecutor, a federal prosecutor and a state court judge before he was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. Through seniority, he rose to become the chief federal judge for Arizona in 2006.

A week before his death, Roll had declared a judicial emergency in southern Arizona. The steady buildup of Border Patrol agents had "produced a tsunami of federal felony cases," most of them involving immigration and drug smuggling, Roll said in a letter to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It is "far beyond the management capacity of the four active district judges in the Tucson division," he said.

In just two years, the number of federal felony cases filed in Tucson had more than doubled, from 1,564 to 3,289. "We've reached a choke point," Roll said.

He asked the 9th Circuit for an emergency declaration that would extend the time for bringing felony defendants from 70 days to 180.

That situation was exacerbated by the fact that, prior to his death, two of the federal court seats in Arizona were vacant; one judge had retired and one had moved up to the 9th Circuit. The White House had yet to nominate replacements. Now, there are three vacancies, in a political climate where Republicans have delayed many of President Obama's nominees.

Friends said he had stopped by the Safeway near his home Saturday morning to thank Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for her help in dealing with the overcrowded court docket.

In the "vigilante rancher" case, Roll rejected Barnett's motion to throw out the lawsuit on the grounds that illegal immigrants had no rights under civil rights laws, thus attracting the death threats. Instead, he upheld the civil rights claim and cleared the way for a jury to decide whether the rancher had abused and kicked the immigrants he captured on and near his property.

"I can honestly say he was the most objective and fair judge I have appeared before in 35 years in law practice," said David Hardy, a Tucson lawyer who defended Barnett. "He saw the law as something out there independent of his own prejudices or biases."

"With all the death threats and the craziness surrounding that trial, you couldn't have picked a better judge," said Richard Martinez, a Tucson lawyer who worked on the case for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF. "He was going to give you a fair trial, and he did just that."

Armed federal marshals were in the courtroom. Some lawyers said they feared outbursts from activists who had been drawn to the trial. On television, commentators Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck featured the rancher on their programs. Only later did lawyers in the case learn that the judge was under round-the-clock protection because of the threats.

In the end, the jury awarded the immigrants $73,000 in damages, far less than the millions they sought. Still, immigrant rights advocates said the verdict set an important precedent.

"He had to make a number of controversial decisions in that case, and he did it without flinching," said David Urias, who was a counsel for MALDEF. "He didn't let the rhetoric or the death threats get in the way of making sure these people had their day in court."

Roll was also known for being tough on criminals. In 1994, he ruled in favor of an Arizona sheriff and struck down part of the Brady Act that required local officials to conduct background checks on new gun buyers. His ruling was later upheld by the Supreme Court.

Environmentalists praised him for several rulings involving endangered species. He ruled against the George W. Bush administration for its failure to designate a protected habitat for endangered jaguars. Two years ago, he ruled against ranchers who opposed the use of GPS data to track and protect endangered wolves in Arizona.

He is survived by his wife, Maureen, and three grown children.

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