John McCarthy Roll, Arizona's chief federal trial judge, was slain Saturday morning in the gun attack in Tucson which gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. At least five others were killed in the attack, and as many as 12 more were wounded.
Judge Roll evidently was at Rep. Giffords' public event -- some reports suggested
he lived close-by and decided to drop in and say hello to Giffords -- when he was shot and killed by the suspected gunman whom police later identified as Jared Loughner, of Tucson. Federal officials in Washington confirmed
Roll's death approximately three hours after the attack. Loughner is now in custody.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who ultimately may decide which charges to bring against the alleged gunman, said Saturday afternoon: "I want to assure the people of Arizona and every American that we will hold accountable anyone responsible for these heinous acts." Judge Roll's status as a federal employee generates the possibility of federal charges -- and perhaps a federal death sentence -- in addition to any state charges that would apply.
The Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, issued a statement on behalf of the Supreme Court, saying Judge Roll "was a wise jurist who selflessly served Arizona and the nation with great distinction, as attorney and judge, for more than 35 years," Roberts said. His death "is a somber reminder of the importance of the rule of law and the sacrifices for those who work to secure it."
The chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski said in a statement "Judge Roll was a widely-respected jurist, a strong and able leader of his court, and a kind, courteous and sincere gentleman."
Roll is survived by his wife, Maureen, three sons and five grandchildren.
He was a 1991 judicial appointee
of George H. W. Bush after a distinguished career as an Arizona state attorney, an assistant U.S.attorney in the state, and then as a state court judge. In 2009, he drew sharp political criticism -- and death threats
-- when he ruled on a pre-trial motion in favor of illegal immigrants in a civil case
involving an Arizona rancher. At the time, the threats, online and otherwise, were significant and persistent enough enough to warrant full protective status from the U.S. Marshal's Service for Roll and his family. No charges were brought against the four men who were subsequently identified as having made the threats.
Fatal attacks upon federal judges are rare. The last federal judge believed to have been assassinated while in office was U.S. District Judge Robert Smith Vance
, who was killed on December 16, 1989 by a mail bomb
at his home in Alabama. In March 2005, the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow were killed
in the judge's home in Chicago. Last year, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter and his family were threatened for his ruling dismissing a "birther" challenger against President Barack Obama. Also last year, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, one of Roll's colleagues on the federal bench in Arizona, was threatened both before and after
she issued a ruling on Arizona's controversial new immigration measure. At the time, U.S. Marshals once again increased protection at federal courthouses in the state.
In December 2009, all federal judges and courts were provided with a new video
entitled "Project 365 -- Security Starts With You" and were actively working with the U.S. Marshals throughout 2010 on ways to improve judicial security to respond to growing Internet threats
and invasions of privacy upon federal judges and their families.
The Federal Judges Association "is going to be aggressive about protecting itself," one source told me this summer. But budget constraints may have held back these efforts until now. Just two months ago, Roll asked 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski for permission to delay
the processing of felony criminal trials in Tucson because of a lack of judicial manpower and space at the Southern Arizona courthouse.