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'John was prepared'

"'John was prepared'" Continued...

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

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.'"

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