Judge John Roll lived just a few minutes away from the Safeway on Tuscon, Ariz.’s Oracle Road. So it wouldn’t have been a major inconvenience for him to drop by on Saturday morning to talk business with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was having an event for constituents at the grocery store.
Roll joined the 20 or 30 people who crowded around Giffords, a three-term Democrat. Just after 10 a.m., a gunman with a 9mm pistol opened fire. Within minutes, six were dead. One of them was Roll, who since 2006 had been the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.
“He had some issues that he wanted to discuss with [Giffords]. She was nearby where he lives,” Pima County, Ariz. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said Sunday at a news conference. “He took the opportunity to go discuss some business with her.”
The 63-year-old judge attended the event to speak with Giffords about the volume of federal cases in Arizona, according to the complaint against the suspected gunman. Roll, the complaint said, “expressed his appreciation” to a Giffords staffer, Ron Barber, for the “help and support” Giffords had given the federal judiciary.
Such a discussion would have been typical for Roll: He had long been agitating for greater resources amid a flood immigration and drug cases. In late November, according to published reports, Roll sent a letter to Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit urging the court to declare Arizona a judicial emergency. In the letter, Roll said the four active judges in Tucson could not keep up with what he called a “tsunami of felony cases.”
Tucson solo practitioner Richard Martinez, who specializes in civil rights and employment discrimination, said Roll took the administrative duties of chief judge seriously, pushing for additional judges and resources and ensuring the court’s translation system worked as smoothly as possible. “He was very committed to maintaining the integrity of the system,” said Martinez, who has appeared before Roll for more than 20 years in civil matters.
Though federal and state law enforcement officials said that Giffords was the target of the attack, Roll spoke to the Arizona Republic newspaper in 2009 about death threats he faced while overseeing a controversial immigration case. He told the paper he and his wife had been followed by a security detail for a month. “It was unnerving and invasive. … By its nature it has to be,” Roll told the paper.
During Saturday’s event, Roll was not accompanied by U.S. Marshals Service officers, Dupnik said. A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, Steve Blando, said Sunday in an e-mail that the agency regularly reviews “protective measures for facilities and protectees in order to assure that the proper measures are applied at all times. Any additional review of these procedures has not been determined at this time.”
In the case that prompted the threats, Vicente v. Barnett, Roll declined to dismiss a $32 million suit brought by a group of Mexican plaintiffs against an Arizona rancher named Roger Barnett.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) represented the plaintiffs, who alleged the rancher assaulted and threatened the group after finding them on public land. Dewey & LeBoeuf and Tucson’s Haralson, Miller, Pitt, Feldman & McAnally participated as pro bono counsel for the plaintiffs. A jury in February 2009 sided in favor of the plaintiffs; the 9th Circuit heard arguments on appeal last month but did not immediately rule.
Three lawyers involved in the Vicente case praised Roll in interviews Sunday. “He was probably the fairest judge I’ve practiced in front of in 35 years,” said a lawyer for Barnett, Tucson solo practitioner David Hardy, who practices in civil and appellate litigation. “He believed there is an objective law out there independent of his own ideas about what the law should be.”
Nina Perales, national senior counsel for MALDEF, called Roll’s death “a tragic loss to his family and to the legal profession.” Perales recalled the increased security in Roll’s courtroom and the law enforcement escort the judge received on his way home from court. Amid the vitriol the case inspired outside the courtroom, Roll remained even-tempered, Perales said.
“He did not waver in his conduct of the case. He continued to preside over the case and to achieve as much normality as he could in the courtroom and presided over it all the way to a jury verdict,” she said.
Roll, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, was known for welcoming first-year law students into his courtroom every year, said Toni Massaro, professor and former dean of the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona. “He was their introduction to the courts and always very patiently explained how things worked,” Massaro said. “He was a very generous person, a very careful listener.”
A 1972 alumnus of the law school, Roll was often involved with campus events and was “a delight to work with,” Massaro said. “Many of my students clerked for him, and they are devastated today,” she said.
Roll spent the better part of 40 years working in the legal system in Arizona. He started as a bailiff and worked as a local and federal prosecutor and state court judge before joining the federal bench, according to news accounts. He is survived by his wife, Maureen, three sons and five grandchildren.
“Even people who might find themselves in disagreement with his views found him to be very fair-minded,” Massaro said. “There isn’t a bad thing to say about him.”
In a statement Saturday, Kozinski called Roll a “widely respected jurist, a strong and able leader of his court, and a kind, courteous and sincere gentleman.” Kozinski said Roll “worked tirelessly to improve the delivery of justice to the people of Arizona. He was always upbeat, optimistic, enthusiastic and positive in his outlook.”
The American Bar Association president, Stephen Zack, a partner in the Miami office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, called the shooting a “direct attack on our American way of life and the rule of law.” Zack called Roll a “respected and admired jurist” and said “his life and service will be long remembered.”
Chief Justice Roberts said in a statement that the judiciary “suffered the terrible loss of one of our own. Chief Judge John Roll was a wise jurist who selflessly served Arizona and the nation with great distinction, as attorney and judge, for more than 35 years.”
The Arizona federal judiciary has 13 judgeships, with eight judges keeping chambers in Phoenix. The court now has three vacancies with Roll’s death. There were no pending nominees for the two earlier vacancies, one of which stems from the president’s elevation in December of U.S. District Judge Mary Murguia to a slot on the 9th Circuit.
In 2006, Roll testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of a measure that would have provided split of the 9th Circuit into two circuits to better cope with increasing caseloads. “The Ninth Circuit, whether viewed from the vantage point of population, number of states, number of judges, or caseload, has proved simply too large to function properly,” Roll said in written testimony.
President Obama on Sunday called for a national moment of silence Monday at 11 a.m. “It will be a time for us to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart,” the president said in a statement.
Giffords, the authorities said, was the target of the shooting. The alleged triggerman, Jared Loughner, was charged Sunday with killing Roll. A five-count complaint filed also charged Loughner with attempted assassination of a member of Congress. Investigators declined to speculate on a motive.
Addressing reporters Sunday in Tucson, FBI Director Robert Mueller III called the shooting a “senseless” and “heinous” act of violence. “This was an attack on our institutions and an attack on our way of life,” he said.