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Judge John Roll In Peers' Thoughts At Superior Court Investiture

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It was an upbeat event, yesterday's investiture ceremony in downtown Phoenix for incoming Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Douglas Gerlach.

Presiding county judge Norm Davis led the Pledge of Allegiance and Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch administered the Oath of Office to the onetime ASU sports broadcaster, the first county Democrat appointed to the bench by Governor Jan Brewer.

Several members of the bench--federal, state and local--were in attendance at the Board of Supervisors auditorium.

Afterward, we spoke to several of the jurists about their recently murdered colleague, U.S. District Court Judge John Roll, who died instantly of a gunshot at the terrible scene in Tucson last Saturday morning, moments after Jared Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head.

According to all accounts so far, it seems that Loughner's prime target was Giffords, and Roll's presence at the Congresswoman's get-together outside the Safeway store sadly was coincidental. 

Roll had been the chief judge of the U.S. District for Arizona since 2006, the culmination of a long and distinguished legal career in his home state (he had moved here from Pennsylvania as a youngster).

Like a majority of Arizonans, the 63-year-old was of a deeply conservative bent politically, a law-and-order type whom had cut his teeth in the 1970s as a prosecutor down in Pima County.

Many of those we spoke to yesterday about Judge Roll resorted to the usual cliches in describing him--"Tough but fair," "Careful and considerate," and the ubiquitous "a judge's judge," whatever that means.

Leave it to retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Ron Reinstein, himself one of the most respected jurists in Arizona, to put things into perspective.

Reinstein knew Judge Roll since the 1970s, when they were young prosecutors, and says he always was impressed with how seriously Roll took doing the right thing, both as a prosecutor and, later, as a judge.

Yes, Roll was very conservative, Reinstein told us, but he would never let his personal views on a topic or a case interfere with how he interpreted the law from the bench.

One of his more recent and most controversial cases involved a southern Arizona rancher who in March 2004 held a group of illegal immigrants at gunpoint in the desert near Douglas.

In 2009, Judge Roll allowed a civil-rights lawsuit against vigilante rancher Roger Barnett to proceed, a ruling that outraged local and national talk-radio hosts and led to literally hundreds of death threats against the Tucson resident and his family.

U.S. Marshals put the judge under 24-hour protection for a time, including following him to the Catholic church where he attended Mass almost daily.

That case, by the way, ended with a jury ordering Barnett to pay some of the plaintiffs about $75,000 in damages, hardly the $32 million they had asked for, but a victory nonetheless.

Certainly Judge Roll was no fan of the undocumented immigrants who continue (though in far fewer numbers than in recent years) to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S.

But he was a fan, to put it one way, of the rule of law, and he was, by all accounts, an honest and decent man.

What more can one ask of a judge.

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