John Roll, the Arizona federal judge killed Saturday by a gunman at a political event, was known within the Tucson legal community as a conservative and even-handed jurist who, in recent years had worked hard to increase funding for an overstretched Arizona federal bench. "He was a life-long Republican and I don't think he would have objected to hearing anyone call him conservative," said Michael Daly Hawkins, a judge on the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Phoenix who had known Judge Roll for over 40 years. "But he was always fair-minded and absolutely attentive to everyone who appeared in his courtroom." Jared Lee Loughner, the man suspected of a shooting spree that killed a Federal Judge and critically wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, had left a trail of online videos in which he railed against the government. WSJ's Neil Hickey reports. Judge Roll, 63 years old, had attended the event Saturday in Tucson to thank Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for signing a letter to Judge Alex Kozinski, the chief judge of the Ninth Circuit, to help convince the court to declare his federal judicial district a judicial emergency due to the high number of immigration cases that were being heard in that district, according to Judge Hawkins. A judicial emergency would put certain new measures in place, such as allowing judges to delay a trial because there were not enough bodies to hear the cases. Judge Roll was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, and had served as chief judge of the District of Arizona since 2006. Throughout the time on the federal bench, Judge Roll developed a reputation as for dealing sternly with criminal defendants, especially those accused of crossing into the state illegally from Mexico. "He had strong feelings about preserving the integrity of the border, and he was no nonsense about people who broke the law," said Richard Martinez, a Tucson attorney who specializes in civil rights litigation. Jon Sands, the federal public defender for Arizona, said the judge tended to favor the government in criminal cases but would occasionally award relatively lenient criminal sentences if circumstances called for it.
But the judge was also fair-minded, said Mr. Martinez, who appeared before the judge in a high profile 2005 suit filed by Mexican immigrants, who claimed that their civil rights had been violated by Arizona ranchers who had detained them at gunpoint after they crossed the border. Judge Roll in 2009 denied the ranchers' motion to dismiss the case, a ruling that earned him scorn among some factions and even death threats. "Whatever his personal feelings were about the case, they didn't come out in court proceedings," said Mr. Martinez, counsel to the immigrants. "That is the mark of a real judge." Judge Roll was involved in several other high-profile cases throughout his tenure. In 2005, he dismissed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior by the families of 11 illegal immigrants who died crossing the Arizona desert. In 1994, he struck down part of a high-profile federal handgun-control law, the so-called Brady Law, as an unconstitutional federal encroachment on states' rights. In recent years, Judge Roll gained bi-partisan support and respect for his tireless pleas for more resources for the federal judiciary, often telling legislators that many of his colleagues on the bench were overwhelmed with immigration and drug cases, attorneys said. "He always felt like judges down here could use more help," said Phoenix lawyer John Bouma. President Obama held a press conference to address the shooting in Tucson, Arizona that wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed Judge John Roll along with several bystanders. Prior to joining the federal bench, Judge Roll served as an Arizona state judge and as a prosecutor at the city, county and federal levels. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 1969 and the University of Arizona College of Law in 1972. In recent years, Judge Roll gained bi-partisan support and respect for his tireless pleas for more resources for the federal judiciary, often telling legislators that many of his colleagues on the bench were overwhelmed with immigration and drug cases, attorneys said. "He always felt like judges down here could use more help," said Phoenix lawyer John Bouma. Prior to joining the federal bench, Judge Roll served as an Arizona state judge and as a prosecutor at the city, county and federal levels. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 1969 and the University of Arizona College of Law in 1972. Judge Roll often visited law schools to give guest lectures. His presentation might end mid-afternoon, but he would invariably stick around campus until late at night, talking with students. "He would sit at a table with them, eat with them, answer endless questions. He would give all of himself," said Alan Sears, a longtime friend and the president of the Alliance Defense Council, a conservative legal organization based in Arizona. "You can imagine how many questions law students would have for a federal judge, and he didn't duck the hard ones." Mr. Sears said Judge Roll attended Mass almost daily and in fact came to the Giffords event immediately after church service. "One of the most cast-about phrases is 'rule of law,' but Judge Roll was someone who really understood it. That was the tone he set," Mr. Sears said. "This is a guy who set aside any personal opinion, looked at the law, looked at the facts and figured out how to provide justice." —Alexandra Berzon and Stephanie Simon contributed to this article. Write to Ashby Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org and Nathan Koppel at email@example.com