January 11, 2011
In Memory of Federal Judge John M. Roll (1948-2011)
On January 8, 2011, U.S. District Judge John M. Roll was shot and killed in an indescribable act of violence in Tucson, Ariz.
Roll, who was appointed a federal judge by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, was attending a constituent meeting hosted by Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. He and five others were killed in an attack primarily aimed at Giffords, who had recently won an electoral campaign marked by especially vitriolic attacks on her character and politics.
Roll began his career as a bailiff in Pima County Superior Court in 1972 and remained in Tucson throughout. From 2006 until his death, he served as chief judge of the District of Arizona. He was 63 years old when he died.
The Center for Biological Diversity brought many environmental cases before Judge Roll. He was fair, thoughtful and interested. Sometimes humorous, sometimes tough, he had a knack for getting to the core of a case quickly and making attorneys focus on that core, whether they wanted to or not.
The Center didn’t win all our cases before him, but we always got a fair hearing. He epitomized the greatest value of the American legal system: the ability of a single, honest man or woman to ensure justice regardless of the weight of political and economic powers benefiting from injustice.
When jaguars once again roam the remote deserts and mountains of the Southwest, it will be because Judge Roll, in a landmark 2009 decision, had the foresight and assertiveness to overrule the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had abandoned U.S. recovery efforts for North America’s largest cat. He struck down the agency’s refusal to prepare a federal recovery plan or designate and protect critical habitat areas north of the Mexican border. The agency is now in the process of developing a recovery plan and mapping out essential jaguar habitat in the United States.
That same year, Roll was himself vilified by right wing talk-radio after allowing Mexican immigrants to file a $32 million civil rights lawsuit against an Arizona rancher who held them at gunpoint as they crossed the border into the United States. Roll and his family were placed under the protection of federal marshals for the duration of the trial in response to numerous threats made against his life. Wanting to preserve free speech and political discourse — even where it crossed the line of civility, threatening his life — Roll declined to press charges against the threat suspects.
John Roll is gone, the victim of a senseless shooting that has shaken our sense of civility and political discourse. But his life’s work lives on, touching our lives and those of our children and grandchildren because of the lasting influence of his courageous judicial rulings. He upheld justice, and in so doing, made the world more just. He upheld the right of other species to thrive, and in so doing, made the world more meaningful.