Tribute to Judge John M. Roll

by James A. Teilborg

Storied Third Branch | Archive
The Storied Third Branch

Published December 2012

In some professions, death is a constant companion. But not in ours. Nothing prepared me for the phone message from our U.S. Marshal on Saturday, January 8, 2011. Before I could return his call, my colleague, Judge Mary Murguia reached me with the news that our beloved friend and District of Arizona Chief Judge John Roll had been fatally wounded in the Tucson massacre, a killing spree that left six dead and many seriously wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. It does not surprise those of us who knew John that his last hours on earth reflected the very essence of his life: faith, family, friends, and the work of the Court. That Saturday started out no differently than most. He attended an early Mass. He was a man of faith who lived out his faith every day and in every way, including regularly attending Mass. By virtue of that faith, he was prepared for what happened, even if we were not.

Normally on Saturday, after Mass, John would go home, and if his wife, Maureen, was not up, he would bring her coffee and the newspaper. Then he would proceed to vacuum the entire house! Their life together was truly a love story. They were inseparable. But on this Saturday, John knew Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was holding a community outreach program at a nearby shopping center. Not wanting Maureen to worry, John called to tell her he would be stopping on the way home to thank the Congresswoman for her help on Court-related matters. The Congresswoman had been particularly responsive to Judge Roll’s requests for approval and funding of a badly-needed new Yuma, Arizona, courthouse.

Incidentally, those efforts became a reality on June 30, 2011, with ground breaking for the John M. Roll U.S. Courthouse. For his foresight in recognizing the need for this facility, and his perseverance and tenacity in securing its approval, that Courthouse should have borne his name even if he had lived to see its completion.

John Roll graduated from the University of Arizona Law School in 1972, started his career as a City of Tucson Prosecutor, and became a deputy county attorney in 1973. By 1976, a newspaper profile reported he had tried more than 70 jury trials in the previous three years. He was a formidable and successful, but greatly admired and respected adversary and colleague. He was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1987.

That success did not come without a price. In describing himself, John said, “I am not Type A. I am Type AAA!” By his own admission, his family came second, until one day in 1980, he received a phone call while he was out of town and learned his youngest son, Christopher, was in the hospital with a life threatening medical crisis. Fortunately, Christopher survived. John came to a deeper and more meaningful faith, and balance became the watchword of John’s life.

Though John was younger than I, he was appointed to the federal bench in 1991. I was appointed later in life, in 2000, after a 33-year career as a trial lawyer. I did not know him personally in those days and knew him only as “your honor” by virtue of appearing in his court a few times. John was present at my investiture. As is often done at investitures, I mentioned some of the people who were significant in shaping my life. One in particular was my Bible study leader who, as I put it, introduced me to the Master Potter. The next day, John emailed me about what a nice investiture it was and that he wished he had used that term at his investiture nine years earlier. That’s when I knew we shared a common faith.

The District of Arizona encompasses the entire state and our duty stations are respectively in Phoenix and Tucson. Because John was based in Tucson, we were together only a few times a year. When he became Chief Judge in 2006, John adopted me as his Phoenix “sounding board” and we were on the phone almost daily. Most calls were prompted by pressing court matters. Inevitably, our conversation would turn to matters of faith and family.

In the process of these conversations, I came to understand the breadth and depth of his character and integrity. Though he held strong, principled views on a variety of subjects, his decision-making process always centered on finding the right and just answer. I never sensed he let ideology drive a result. As Chief Judge, he filled some big shoes of outstanding predecessors. He quickly rose to the occasion. He was unafraid to make difficult or even unpopular decisions, but only did so after seeking as much input as possible and attempting to build a consensus. I believe leadership is fundamentally unselfish and John personified that principle.

A trial judge in one of the busiest districts in the country can easily let quality control suffer. Not John. His pursuit of excellence was evident in his judicial work as well as his administrative responsibilities. Frequently, he was called on to petition Congress for funding in support of staff and facilities. He frequently flattered me by asking me to review a draft. His idea of a “draft” would qualify as a final version with most readers.

John was courageous. In the mid-2000s, there was an effort to split the Ninth Circuit. John was among a small contingent of district and circuit judges who rose in support of the split. This undertaking did nothing to enhance one’s popularity among many of one’s colleagues in the circuit. But John was undaunted. He testified before Congress boldly and well-armed with statistics and arguments in classic John Roll style. He also found time to “dash off” a law review article on the subject, in keeping with his scholarly bent.

To be sure, Judge Roll will be remembered as a scholar, tough and fair prosecutor with an enviable trial record, distinguished member of the Arizona Court of Appeals, outstanding trial judge, member of the Judicial Conference Criminal Rules Committee, author of the Federal Judges’ Bench Book and, most recently, our indefatigable and beloved chief judge. Much about a person’s life can serve to inspire others and these accomplishments would do so. But John’s personal qualities served to inspire colleagues, members of the bar, those who served in his chambers and certainly, me. He was a humble man and that humility underpinned his every word and deed. No matter how contentious were the issues or strong his feelings, both John’s public discourse and private reflections were absolutely without rancor. There was only one John Roll. Whether you were a janitor or a Justice on the Supreme Court, he knew your name and treated you with equal deference. Stories are legion where John was seen unhurriedly and unceremoniously taking time to speak with a court employee, custodian, waiter or waitress, or, especially, a young person. He gave unselfishly of his time to his clerks, externs, and other young people on whose lives he had a profound impact. The outpouring from this group after John’s death was remarkable and profound.

I knew this man and I knew his heart. In our many telephone conversations, I think I never heard him more excited than when he was getting ready to go camping. A camping trip meant: John, Maureen, her mother (his mother-in-law), one or more of the grandchildren, and two dogs–in a tent trailer! Now, I love camping, and I love my wife, and my grandchildren, and my mother-in-law, and my three dogs. But all going camping together? I DON’T THINK SO.

For all his accomplishments and greatness, I am confident John would simply want to be remembered as a good and faithful servant to his God and country; devoted husband to Maureen; father to Robert, Patrick, and Christopher and father-in-law to their wives; grandfather to five grandchildren; and loving son-in-law. Thus, while he influenced and inspired me as a judge and as a husband and father, I will always remember him as my cherished friend.

About James A. Teilborg

James A. Teilborg is a Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Arizona.