Usually on Saturday mornings, District of Arizona Chief Judge John Roll, 63, would go to Mass, then return home to vacuum the carpet and mop the floors for his wife, Maureen.
On Saturday, Jan. 8, Roll went to Mass, as usual, and then just before 10 a.m., he stopped by a local Safeway grocery store to greet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was holding an event for constituents there. She had pushed for Roll's district to be declared a judicial emergency because of its heavy caseload. But as he stood near the congresswoman outside the store, a gunman walked up and shot Giffords through the head at close range. Then the gunman turned on the crowd with his semiautomatic, sending bullets into bodies, windows, and bottles of 7-Up inside the store.
As the bullets flew, Roll pushed one of Giffords' staffers, Ron Barber, 65, under a table set up for Giffords' event, according to law enforcement who watched surveillance footage of the shooting. Covering Barber's injured body, Roll ducked under the table as well, leaving his back exposed to the gunman, who shot and killed him. Barber was shot three times, but survived, and law enforcement say Roll may have saved his life. Days later, Barber went directly from the hospital to Roll's funeral. Another victim also sacrificed himself: Dorwan Stoddard, 76, died shielding his wife Mavy.
Roll was one of six who died-law enforcement officials believe that Giffords was the target of assassination, not him. Thirteen were injured. Giffords has survived, making such stunning progress in regaining motor skills that she was released to a rehabilitation center two-and-a-half weeks after being shot through the left side of her brain.
"Heroism is here, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, all around us, just waiting to be summoned, as it was on Saturday morning," President Obama said at the memorial service for the victims on Jan. 12. "Their actions, their selflessness poses a challenge to each of us. It raises a question of what, beyond prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen?"
From accounts of a close friend and other colleagues, Roll was a shrewd, compassionate judge, and a devoted Christian. He began his almost 40 years in public service as a state and federal prosecutor, then he became a state judge in 1987. President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the federal bench in 1991, and he rose to become chief judge of the district in 2006.
He leaves behind his wife Maureen, with whom he was about to celebrate his 41st wedding anniversary, three sons, and five grandchildren. He loved Maureen dearly and would take breakfast to her in bed, according to his close friend, Arizona District Judge James Teilborg. Maureen has done crisis pregnancy counseling with Tucson Catholic Charities over the years, and the family asked for memorial contributions to be sent to, among other places, Merilac Lodge, a Catholic home in Tucson for pregnant and parenting teenagers.
On Jan. 14, 1,700 mourners packed out St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church for Roll's funeral while several hundred more stood outside. Teilborg, a Clinton appointee, delivered a eulogy to an audience that included former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who initially recommended Roll for the federal bench. The funeral was closed to the media, but Teilborg shared his eulogy with WORLD.
"None of us in this church was prepared for what happened at that horrific moment last Saturday," Teilborg said. "But John was prepared. He was prepared because he knew with complete assurance where he would spend eternity."
The two became close friends because of their shared faith, even though Roll was Catholic and Teilborg is Protestant. "That was a distinction that never entered into our relationship. We both had the same source of immutable and eternal truth in the Scriptures," Teilborg told me. Teilborg used to appear as an attorney before Roll, about a decade before he became a judge in 2000. Then Roll came to his investiture ceremony and when Teilborg introduced one of his mentors, a Bible teacher who he said had "introduced me to the master potter," that grabbed Roll's attention.
Though Roll served in Tucson and Teilborg served in Phoenix, over the years they began talking almost daily on the phone. "He flattered me by seeking my advice on court matters rather regularly," Teilborg told me. "I always thought the fact that he sought my advice was something that I wasn't up to giving. He was a veteran judge and I was a relatively junior judge. Somehow he thought I had something to offer." Teilborg said often Roll would share something from the Bible that he had read earlier in the day. "He didn't read the Bible out of some ritualistic habit or because of its wonderful prose. For John it was spiritual food," Teilborg said in his eulogy.
After the funeral, the district court returned full bore to its business and a heavier load of cases for the remaining judges. A federal judge has on average 394 filings a year, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts' 2008 report, and Roll said in 2007 that his judges in Tucson averaged 604 sentences each a year. Teilborg spoke to me as he was coming off the bench in Phoenix: "We're still in recovery mode," he said, but the judges agreed that Roll would have been upset if they had delayed urgent work on his behalf. "The work load was crushing before his loss."
Though a Bush appointee, Roll wasn't a politically predictable judge. In 2009 he ruled that the law required federal officials to provide better protection for endangered jaguars. He faced death threats the same year after allowing a suit that illegal immigrants had brought against an Arizona rancher, Roger Barnett, to go forward. A jury fined Barnett for assault and emotional distress after he detained the immigrants at gunpoint, and Roll and his wife traveled with U.S. marshal protection for a month. "Some deputies went to church more in a week than they had in their lives," David Gonzales, the U.S. marshal in Arizona, told The Washington Post at the time.
One of Roll's most noted rulings concerned the 1993 Brady Act, which requires gun dealers to screen buyers, looking for records of felonies or mental illness. It also required state and local law enforcement to do background checks. An Arizona county sheriff, Richard Mack, along with other sheriffs, challenged that provision in the law, arguing that the federal government could not impose laws for state law enforcement to carry out. Roll ruled in 1994 that the requirement for state law enforcement to perform background checks was unconstitutional. Mack would be held legally responsible for any failure to check gun sales, and with 12 officers covering the county he said he did not have the manpower to enforce the new law.
"Mack is thus forced to choose between keeping his oath or obeying the act, subjecting himself to possible sanctions," Roll wrote in the ruling. Mack said Roll's comment "touched his soul" and that he always remembered it. "To have a federal judge actually grasp the full extent of my personal motivation for filing this case was absolutely remarkable," he wrote after Roll's death. The case went to the Supreme Court, which upheld Roll's ruling. The Brady Act did not prevent Roll's alleged killer, Jared Loughner, from buying his weapon. Loughner came up clean on a background check at Sportsman's Warehouse in Tucson because he had no records of either felonies or mental illnesses, though his community college had instructed him to undergo a mental health exam.
Roll was personally conservative, but he served under the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a more liberal circuit, so he interpreted the law based on that circuit's rulings. "His decision was one that he made based on the legal standards that he recognized and not based on whatever he thought ought to have happened," said Matt Bowman, who clerked for Roll from 2003 to 2005 and is now a lawyer at the Alliance Defense Fund. Roll's faith was the reason why he "showed such deep respect for everyone he met, and why he performed his legal duties with excellence and detail and care," Bowman said.
Lawyers who had appeared in Roll's court and who the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary interviewed anonymously described the judge similarly. "Cross your t's and dot your i's," said one. "No sloppy work, ever." Another: "He does not suffer fools easily." Teilborg said Roll would jokingly refer to himself as "type triple-A." But Roll also showed compassion in a court that typically has more personal interactions with litigants than the scholarly law discussions of appeals courts. Whenever he sentenced a defendant, Bowman said, he did so with a thorough knowledge of his or her history. He also noticed that Roll would greet the security guard in the courtroom and ask about his child.
Teilborg closed his eulogy for Roll by reading Micah 6:8. "'He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?'" Teilborg read. "I know of no one who has better lived out this mandate. So, to this humble man, God must be saying at this moment, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.'"
Disorder in the courts
The federal judiciary in the United States is stretched and groaning under its workload. Currently the federal courts have 101 judicial vacancies, or about 11 percent of the judgeships. Just before Christmas, the two parties in the Senate finally came to an agreement and confirmed 19 judicial nominees, but the approval process has been slow. In January the president renominated 42 individuals for the federal judiciary, most of whose nominations had expired at the end of the last Congress.
By contrast, at the end of George W. Bush's first two years in office, only seven nominees awaited confirmation-but the process stalled later in his administration. "Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes," said Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts in his year-end report on the judiciary in December. "This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts." For example, Roberts' seat on the D.C. Circuit Court that he left in 2005 to join the Supreme Court is still vacant.
John Roll's district already had two vacancies, and his death created a third, out of 18 positions. The Arizona district court is one of five border districts that bear 73 percent of the nation's immigration-related cases, which went up substantially recently as the federal government has beefed up agents along the border. Still, the vacancies in the district are relatively recent, going back only to August 2010. The Arizona congressional delegation has given its "undivided attention" to filling vacancies, Judge James Teilborg said, but the president has to begin the process by naming nominees. Still, he said, the passing of Roll "creates a vacancy that cannot be filled."