Sustained Outrage

How the Senate can honor Judge John Roll

As the world now knows, Judge John M. Roll, Chief U.S. District Judge for Arizona, was among the six people murdered in Saturday’s shooting rampage in Tuscon. Although U.S. Marshals had placed Roll under 24-hour security for a month in 2009 following his ruling in a controversial civil case involving immigration, then as now a hot-button issue in Arizona, Roll does not appear to have been targeted by the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik of Pima County, Ariz., as reported in the New York Times.

Apparently, Judge Roll stopped by the event to thank Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., for signing a letter sent to Judge Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. Circuit Court for the 9th Circuit, asking the appellate court to declare Roll’s district a judicial emergency, according to the Wall Street Journal. Districts along the U.S.-Mexico border are swamped with immigration cases, making them some of the busiest districts in the country.

Judge Roll called Ms. Giffords within the last couple of days to thank her for signing the letter; she mentioned she was doing a constituent event in the area where he lived so he decided to attend the event to thank her, according to Judge [Michael] Hawkins.

The letter signed by Rep. Giffords and Rep. Pastor, outlined the challenge Judge Roll faced in handling a growing caseload. “The District of Arizona is simply overworked and understaffed…Much of the District’s caseload is a direct result of the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Judicial resources in the District of Arizona are simply unable to keep pace with this escalating crisis at the border.”

Roll, 63, was a husband, father and grandfather, and he spent his entire legal career in public service. And while he did not shy away from controversy, he was kind and cordial on the bench, the Times’ piece noted.

Richard M. Martinez, a lawyer who had appeared before Judge Roll more than a dozen times over the years, said he admired how Judge Roll had appeared unshaken by the death threats over the rancher case.

“His commitment to making the right decisions as he saw them, to the point of putting himself at risk, was a reflection of who he was and how he acted as a judge,” Mr. Martinez said.

In the courtroom, Judge Roll was formal, civil and fair, Mr. Martinez said. “Even when he ruled against you, more often than not it was hard to argue against the decision he made,” he said. “You got a fair day in court, and that’s all you can ask for.”

Writing for The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen stressed the importance of understanding Roll’s ruling in the immigration case, and praised the judge’s fairness and courage in the face of hateful threats and vitriol.

In the aforementioned lawsuit, which came to a head in 2009, Judge Roll did precisely what federal judges are supposed to do–apply the law neutrally, treat the poor and dispossessed no worse and no better than the rich and powerful, and seek to dispense a measure of justice without fear or favor. As a result of his courage, his application of the law in circumstances he knew would be unpopular among Arizona’s loudest activists, Judge Roll was threatened with death, both privately and publicly. He and his family needed round-the-clock security from federal agents.

Here’s how Judge Kozinski and others recalled him:

“Judge Roll was a widely respected jurist, a strong and able leader of his court, and a kind, courteous and sincere gentleman. He worked tirelessly to improve the delivery of justice to the people of Arizona. He was always upbeat, optimistic, enthusiastic and positive in his outlook. He touched many lives and will be sorely missed by all who knew him – colleagues, court staff, members of the bar.”

Ninth Circuit Judge Mary M. Schroeder of Phoenix, a former chief judge of the circuit, said Judge Roll was respected and loved in both his professional and personal life.

“He was famous for being able to say so many genuinely nice things about people without having to consult notes, for he so genuinely loved people and had such a remarkable mind,” Judge Schroeder said. “Judge Roll will be greatly missed and will continue to provide inspiration for the generations of lawyers and judges who were fortunate enough to know him.”

Fair, neutral, civil, just, kind, courteous — by all accounts, Roll was exactly the kind of jurist America wants on the federal bench. But one thing really jumped out at me when I reviewed Roll’s biography: He was nominated by President George H.W. Bush on Sept. 23, 1991, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Nov. 22, 1991 — less than two months later.

That’s the way judicial confirmations are supposed to work. After consultation with the home state’s senators, the president nominates a candidate, the Senate Judiciary Committee gets to kick the tires, and if everyone agrees that the nominee is qualified — as was clearly the case with Judge Roll — then the candidate is quickly confirmed and put to work.

No secret holds. No hollow threats to filibuster. No cloture votes. No backroom wheeling and dealing to secure the necessary floor time for a vote.

Today, such an expeditious confirmation of a judicial nominee is unthinkable. Even noncontroversial candidates languish for months on end. Judge Roll’s inadvertently tragic advocacy to Rep. Giffords is a devastating reminder that our federal courts are suffering because of it.

While proclamations and heightened focus on judicial security are all well and good, the Senate can best honor Judge Roll by living up to its obligation to confirm qualified judges in a timely manner. This is not to say that every nominee should be fast-tracked, or that the Senate automatically sign off on whatever name the White House sends over. If a senator has a genuine issue with a particular candidate, the lawmaker should make his or her position known by voting no. But when obviously qualified, non-controversial candidates are nominated, they should be confirmed without politically motivated delays. It’s that simple.