Gavel Grab

Reports: Slain Judge an Innocent Bystander?

He had received death threats in the past. But Chief Judge John M. Roll of the federal district court in Arizona apparently was an innocent bystander when he was slain during a shooting rampage that gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a law enforcement official said.

Judge Roll, 63, had gone to Mass nearby and decided to stop and greet Giffords, D-Ariz., who was a close friend, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times.

When a gunman started shooting in an area outside the supermarket where Giffords was meeting constituents, six people were killed and 12 wounded. Giffords was the apparent target.

Another account came in a Washington Post article. It said Judge Roll was departing a supermarket nearby when he saw an aide to Giffords whom he knew and stopped to say hello, according to a Giffords spokeswoman.

In the 20th century, three federal judges were assassinated, the last in 1989, suggesting that killings of federal judges are rare. But threats on judges and prosecutors have more than doubled since 2003 (see Gavel Grab post.)

There were hundreds of anonymous threats made against Judge Roll two years ago, when he ruled that a $32 million civil rights lawsuit against a rancher, filed by illegal immigrants, could go forward. He was the subject of talk-radio discussion, was a target of criticism by angry conservatives, and was put under 24-hour surveillance by the U.S. Marshal Service.

He chose not to press charges when several threat suspects were identified.

“I have a very strong belief that there is nothing wrong with criticizing a judicial decision,” he was quoted as saying in a New York Times article.  “But when it comes to threats, that is an entirely different matter,” he added.

While investigators initially thought the judge’s killing was not tied to the earlier death threats, they said all possible motives would be examined in a comprehensive probe. A suspect was in custody.

Judge Roll was saluted posthumously by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. (see earlier Gavel Grab post) as a “wise jurist” who “served with great distinction” as an attorney and judge.

“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,” said Alex Kozinski, chief judge for the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals about Judge Roll.

The Pennsylvania native was described by Arizona Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch as “a kind man, a wise and fair jurist, and a friend to many within the legal community,” according to an ABA Journal article.

Stephen Zack, the American Bar Association president, described the shootings “a direct attack on our American way of life and the rule of law.” Zack added, “This shocking and frightening event emphasizes the importance of protecting and respecting our civic life, and all those who participate in it.”

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, an Arizona resident, called Judge Roll “wonderful” and said of the news, “It sounds like something that might happen in some place like Afghanistan.” Justice O’Connor went on, “It shouldn’t happen in Tucson, Ariz., or anyplace else in the United States.”

An appointee of President George H.W. Bush in 1991, Judge Roll  graduated from the University of Arizona in 1969 and the its law school in 1972. He had served as an assistant U.S. attorney for Arizona, as a judge of the Pima County Superior Court and on the state Court of Appeals.

The shooting rampage “set off what is likely to be a wrenching debate over anger and violence in American politics,” according to a New York Times article, entitled “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics.” A Washington Post headline stated, “Rampage casts grim light on U.S. political discord.”

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  1. […] killings of federal judges are rare (see Gavel Grab), threats upon judges have risen sharply. And in 2005, the husband and mother of U.S. District […]

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