Don't Let Judge Roll Die in Vain

Arizona Chief U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, slain in a supermarket on a sunny Saturday morning, was the victim of awful circumstance. Ever the gentleman--so said 9th U.S. Circuit Court Chief Judge Alex Kosinski, later, in tribute--Judge Roll had stopped by to say hello to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at the very moment the Tucson gunman struck. No brave and vigilant U.S. Marshal could protect or save him from the attack.

Judge Roll's death may have been random in the sense that he was not the target of Jared Lee Loughner's gun. This was not, from what is now publicly known, an intentional attack upon a federal judge but rather a matter of a dedicated public servant being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the others involved in this horrible tragedy, living and dead, poor Judge Roll's fate is akin to that of Jim Brady in March 1981, a coincidental victim of John Hinckley's attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. It is less akin to U.S. District Judge Robert Smith Vance, the federal jurist who was killed by a mail bomb at his home in Alabama in 1989.

But it would be unfair to Judge Roll's memory, not to mention unsafe for his surviving colleagues on the bench and unwise of the Congress, to discount the level of hate and anger directed at Judge Roll and other judges across the country in this disheartening season of American discontent. For example, I wrote an obituary for the judge on Saturday afternoon. By Sunday morning, commenters were leaving messages like this one:

"Apparently you weren't aware that Rolls allowed a $32 million civil rights lawsuit between some illegals and an Arizona rancher whos property they were using to enter the US illegally to proceed. It looks to me as thought the good judge was more interested in protecting illegal sp*cks then he was the American people. Now he's dead, he's going to stay dead and he's not going to roll over for the illegals anymore. I think this country just became a much better place to live."

A much better place to live? 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.

It is vital today, before the funerals and while America still is paying attention to this tragedy, for the record to reflect what the case was actually about, why it was brought, and what Judge Roll actually did. The civil lawsuit was brought by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) against an anti-immigrant Arizona rancher named Roger Barnett. The allegations were that Barnett, who had a long history of physically and emotionally terrorizing migrants, had physically and verbally abused a particular group of immigrants. The narrative read like a Jim Crow tale or even a John Wayne western--Barnett is a former deputy sheriff in his county and the brother of a former sheriff there. Who else but a federal judge could have held him accountable?  

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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