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A Life Given


Matthew Bowman

A makeshift memorial with a photo of Federal Judge John Roll is seen during a candlelight vigil at the Arizona State Capitol. (Rick D’Elia/Corbis)

On the morning of Saturday, Jan. 8, Chief Judge John M. Roll attended Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Tucson, Ariz., before heading to the grocery store where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was holding an event for constituents. When a gunman opened fire on the crowd moments later, Roll shielded a friend from attack and took a fatal bullet in his own back.

In the weeks that followed this devastating attack, much has been written and said about the victims. Although Judge Roll is now known as a hero, the Catholic community may not fully appreciate the loss it has suffered from his death. Those who knew the judge understand that his final actions were the fruit of a more ordinary kind of heroic virtue that he lived in his daily life.


I knew Judge Roll as a mentor and as a true father-figure, having worked for him as a law clerk from 2003 to 2005. I had just finished law school at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich. Students from many prestigious schools applied to work for the judge, but he was willing to give me and my Catholic alma mater a chance.

I discovered the clerk position because Judge Roll was one of the few judges who listed the Knights of Columbus in his federal judiciary biography. As Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson noted when expressing his sadness about the shooting, the judge was a member for 24 years, a Fourth Degree Knight and a charter member of Deacon Raphael "Ray" Longpre Council 10441 in Tucson.

Visiting a federal judge for a job interview, I was understandably nervous. When I met Judge Roll, however, he treated me as if I were the most important person there. He and his wife took me to dinner and even drove me back to the airport. Later, during my clerkship, my wife and 2-year-old child would often visit me at work. Judge Roll always took time to come out of his office to talk and visit with us in his chambers.

On several occasions, he walked into my cubicle to share an inspirational book or presentation he had recently discovered. Later, he enthusiastically worked on a letter of recommendation for me to clerk at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and I was eventually hired by then-Judge Samuel Alito.

A humble and fervent Catholic, Judge Roll established for me an unparalleled ideal for which to strive in my moral and professional life. He nurtured young lawyers as apprentices entering a noble profession. He shared his personal impressions with us about the performances and intrigues of proceedings in court. He set aside time during most weeks to sit and discuss new cases that we found interesting from the Supreme Court or the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He even devoted extra time each year to speak to Christian law students about pursuing their profession with integrity and faithfulness.

Judge Roll was not just casually associated with the mission of the Church, nor was he merely an intellectual Catholic. He was a man of deep commitments and was intensely dedicated to the Church, because he was first and foremost devoted to Jesus Christ.

His morning routine included swimming, reading the Bible, reading legal briefs and bringing his wife a cup of coffee in bed. As often as he could, he attended daily Mass.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, who began corresponding with Judge Roll after meeting the judge's wife in 2008, described "four clear marks" that were evident in each of the judge's letters: "generosity, intelligence, largeness of spirit and a sincere love for his Catholic faith."

After Judge Roll's funeral, fellow Arizona Federal Judge James Teilborg — an evangelical Christian — expressed admiration for the judge's living commitment to the study of God's word. The two judges would often discuss Scripture in conversations about court business.

"None of us were ready" for his death, said Judge Teilborg, "but John Roll was."

Judge Roll lived his relationship with Jesus Christ toward every person he met. His pastor from St. Thomas the Apostle Church said that one of the U.S. Marshals who handles security at the federal court building in Tucson was eager to relate how much all of them would miss the judge because "he treated the lady at the lunch counter the same as he treated the Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit [Court of Appeals]."

Indeed, Judge Roll greeted the security guards by name and asked about their families. He did the same with a cadre of probation officers who briefed him every morning on the criminal defendants he was tasked with sentencing. He issued judgments in their cases with meticulous attention to detail, not only of the crime, but also of their personal histories. He read every word of every brief and memo out of respect for the people who wrote them, and he usually knew the details better than the attorneys did. He required a formal and respectful atmosphere in his courtroom, but treated the participants with kindness, not sternness. And he cared deeply about his staff and their families, sharing with them the stresses and fascinating developments of the day with humor and patience.


Judge Roll's attention to the people he encountered reminds me of Pope John Paul II, whose undivided personal attention was fondly remembered by each of the thousands of people whom the pope met. In the accounts following Judge Roll's death, judicial colleagues from across the ideological spectrum have universally reported his unfailing courtesy and respectfulness. Former Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Mary Schroeder said Judge Roll "was famous for being able to say so many genuinely nice things about people without having to consult notes, for he so genuinely loved people and had such a remarkable mind."

Ninth Circuit Judge Michael Daly Hawkins remarked, "He was always fair-minded and absolutely attentive to everyone who appeared in his courtroom."

Judge Roll's life in service to the courts and the prosecutor's office was a sincere expression of patriotism for his country, and a devotion to America's founding rule of law as a good that stabilizes and enriches our society. His attention to personal detail made him renowned in his profession.

Above all of this, though, John Roll was a devoted husband, father, son and grandfather. His family meant everything to him, and somehow amidst his professional excellence, he prioritized giving time to his wife, her mother, his three sons and his five grandchildren.

In the weeks after his death, Judge Roll's family expressed in an inspiring and heartbreaking way the deep meaning that he held in their lives. This included not only things like taking the family camping every year and teaching his grandchildren how to swim, but also showing his sons how to be good husbands and fathers.

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All of this correctly suggests that if Judge Roll was still with us, he would be calling attention away from himself and toward the other victims of the Tucson shooting and their families, especially 9-year-old Christina Green, who was also an active member of the Catholic Diocese of Tucson. In fact, the pastor at Roll's funeral revealed that the judge reportedly told a doctor who came to help, "I know it's too late to save me; go help the people you can save."

Judge John Roll, I think, is a modern-day Thomas More. In fact, a biography of that great English saint could always be found on the coffee table in Judge Roll's chambers.

Widely respected throughout Europe as a lawyer and scholar, St. Thomas More was known as being formidably skillful, yet gentle and courtly to all. His character was impeccable and uncompromised — even in the face of death. He was a man of prayer; he was loved by influential and working people alike; and he was totally devoted to his family, whose lives he showered with love and ample good humor.

In all of these ways, Judge Roll was also a Christ-like model in his daily life. For this reason he will be greatly missed, and his example can be a guidepost for Catholics and all persons of good will for years to come.


Matt Bowman served as a law clerk for Judge John Roll from 2003-05. An attorney in Washington, D.C., he is a member of St. Jerome Council 5564 in Hyattsville, Md.