Judge John M. Roll wasn’t the target of a gunman outside a Tucson supermarket. Even so, the 63-year-old federal judge’s slaying was hugely unsettling to other federal judges, even beyond the loss of one of their colleagues.
In an era of rising threats against judges, Judge Roll’s fatal shooting raised troubling questions, TIME reported in an article entitled, “Why the Tucson Massacre Has Rattled U.S. Judges.”
The news of Judge Roll’s murder — which occurred when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others also were shot Saturday — was “very disturbing, just when we were beginning to feel secure,” U.S. Judge Robert Gettleman of Chicago told the magazine shortly after the rampage. He continued:
“As judges I’m confident most all of us would like to feel safe as participants in our communities without believing we need special protection. I hope that’s the norm, although recent events may indicate otherwise. We certainly don’t want to live our lives like judges in some other countries (like Russia, Kenya) must, under constant guard.”
Judge Roll had received death threats, and angry callers swamped his telephone lines, after he ruled in 2009 that a lawsuit by illegal immigrants against an Arizona rancher could go forward. The judge received federal security around the clock for a month.
But he apparently was an innocent bystander when he was shot fatally. Judge Roll, the chief judge in the Arizona district, had shown up to thank Giffords for signing a letter written to Judge Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It urged designation of Judge Roll’s district as a judicial emergency because of the high number of immigration cases, according to a Wall Street Journal article.
While 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 Judge Joan Lefkow were slain in Chicago.
John Clark, director of the U.S. Marshals Service, explained some of the reasons for the rise in threats on jurists:
“In today’s world there are more individuals who are more prone to threatening judges. I think a lot of it has to do with the availability of information with the use of technology and the Internet. Individuals can find out more about particular cases and judges’ decisions. They can use the Internet sources to find out more about the judge.”
In the case of Judge Roll, a FBI statement filed in connection with criminal charges said the jurist was talking to an aide of Giffords’ just before the shooting started, Bloomberg reported. Jared Loughner, 22, was charged with killing Judge Roll.
Andrew Cohen, a legal analyst for CBS News, wrote a commentary in The Atlantic that was headlined, “Don’t Let Judge Roll Die in Vain.” Cohen said that it would be mistaken “to discount the level of hate and anger directed at Judge Roll and other judges across the country.” On Sunday morning, after Cohen had written a Saturday obituary about the judge, he had received messages including 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.”
In the ruling, Cohen wrote, “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.”