In Remembrance: The Honorable John M. Roll

One week ago today, six people lost their lives when a gunman opened fire at a Tucson, Arizona meet and greet for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

On Friday, family, friends and colleagues gathered at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church for the funeral of one of those killed, Judge John Roll.

Roll was, according to his law clerk Matt Bowman, a devout Catholic who attended mass almost daily. He was known as a conservative man, professional and very serious in court, but pleasant and friendly off the bench.

Sixteen people survived the shooting. The alleged target, Representative Giffords, shot in the head, is now expected to survive. So much focus as been on the congresswoman’s fight for life, the tragic death of a child born on 9/11, and the country’s struggle to make sense of what happened, that we have paid little attention to the other victims present that day. As an attorney, I’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to Judge Roll, a man who served his country as a lawyer and jurist.

Judge Roll spent nearly two decades on the federal bench. He was appointed by President H.W. Bush in 1991, and later became the Chief Judge of the Arizona Federal Courts.

While it has become increasingly clear in the course of the last week that the shooting was largely the product of a disturbed mind, there has also been a reconsideration of the tone of political discourse in the country—and rightly so. Not only had Congresswoman Giffords expressed concern for her safety after the targeting of her district—metaphorical and otherwise—by Sarah Palin and others who disagreed with her on the issues, but her friend Judge Roll also became the target of death threats two years ago when he presided over the case of “The Illegal Immigrants vs. The Vigilante Rancher,” as the case was known on local talk radio.

Sixteen undocumented immigrants sued Roger Barnett, a rancher, claiming he had accosted them at gunpoint when they were walking near a state highway along the Arizona border with Mexico. They alleged he had kicked and threatened them with attack dogs, leaving them in fear for their lives.

For the first time, a federal judge would decide whether people in this country illegally could sue their alleged assailants under the civil rights laws.

Despite the intense hostility the case engendered, lawyers on both sides agreed Judge Roll was a model of fairness.

Judge Roll was the best possible judge for the case. He’d grown up in Arizona. He’d gone to college and law school at U of A. He’d served as a city prosecutor, federal prosecutor and state court judge, all before he was appointed to the federal bench.

While the temptation may be great to say the events of last week were simply the product of mental illness, we should not be too quick to ignore the time and place of their origin. Just one week before the shooting, Judge Roll had declared a federal judicial emergency in his home state.

The incremental build up of border patrol agents has now produced “a tsunami of federal felony cases,” Judge Roll wrote in a letter to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the next highest court. Most of these cases involve drug smuggling and immigration violations, he explained. In just two years, the number of felony cases had doubled. The situation is “far beyond the management capacity of the four active district judges in the Tucson division,” he said. “We’ve reached a choke point.”

That situation was aggravated by the fact that two of the nine federal court seats in Arizona were vacant (one judge had retired; another had been elevated to the very Ninth Circuit to which he was begging for help). This, in a political climate where Republicans have delayed so many of President Obama’s nominees. Now, there are three vacancies to be filled.

Back to the “Illegal Immigrants vs. The Vigilante Rancher” case: Judge Roll ruled the case could go forward. In other words, he ruled for the “illegal immigrants.” He found that they could proceed in their case against the rancher. He ruled that they could, under the civil rights laws of this country, sue. Not a popular decision, despite the fact that a jury, not Judge Roll, answered the ultimate question in the case—whether the farmer had violated their rights. But that was enough to make some people very angry.

There were death threats. Armed federal marshals were posted in Judge Roll’s courtroom. Some lawyers who appeared there said they were afraid to do so. On television, Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck featured the rancher on their programs. The judge was under around-the-clock protection during the trial because of the threats.

First Amendment rights aside, vitriolic attacks on our public officials are not healthy for our democracy. Yes, a healthy debate on the issues is required, if we are to move our country forward. Jefferson and Adams were guilty of no less, engaging in one of the ugliest wars of words our nation has ever seen during the tumultuous presidential campaign of 1800. (The man Jefferson hired to write for his campaign even served jail time for the slander he wrote about Adams!). But neither man ever called for violence against the other. That is beyond tolerable.

When it comes to our judiciary, especially, we cannot tolerate calls for violence. Yet, in addition to Judge Roll, we have seen the murders of the Hon. John Wood, in 1979 (shot outside his San Antonio home, by a drug dealer), Hon. Richard Daronco, in 1988 (shot and killed in his yard in Pelham, NY, by a dissatisfied plaintiff), and the Hon. Robert Vance, 1989 (killed by letter bomb at his Alabama home). Those are just the federal judges killed. That omits threats and attempts and all of the cases involving judges in state courts. Judges must remain independent and must operate without fear of retribution for the fair and impartial decisions they make. No free society can stand without judges free from attack from its citizenry.

I clerked for the late Hon. Allen E. Broussard in California in 1989, the year Judge Vance was killed. A law school classmate and very close friend of mine served as Judge Vance’s law clerk, at the time. It was only December, a few months into his clerkship when Judge Vance was brutally murdered. It is difficult to explain the bond between law clerk and judge to those who have not had that relationship, but as one who did, I understood profoundly the loss then, and I understand today the loss Matt Bowman feels. My thoughts and prayers are with him, and with Judge Roll’s wife and three grown children.

Jami Floyd is a broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.