TUCSON, Ariz. — On his last day on earth, Judge John Roll exemplified Catholic virtues that have marked his life — faith, hope and charity.
On Saturday, Jan. 8, he attended the 8:30am Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle, his parish church in Tucson, where about 75 people heard a reading from 1 John: “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding.”
Going to Mass almost every day was part of the 63-year-old judge’s regular practice of faith, which also included reading Bible passages in a daily devotional.
And it was an act of hope — if only in the ability of public servants to confront common challenges — which led Roll to see Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., at her “Congress on Your Corner” event at a Safeway supermarket just before 10am that morning.
As chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, he was concerned about the court’s rapidly expanding workload. Although it was his day off, he wanted to thank Giffords for supporting increased judicial resources.
As Roll waited for the congresswoman, he chatted with his friend, Ronald Barber, 65, who served as Giffords’ district office director. Barber and Roll attended the University of Arizona together in the 1960s.
And in an act of charity, when a young gunman started shooting, Safeway surveillance film shows, Roll guided Barber under a table for cover and physically shielded his body.
Roll was “covering up Mr. Barber, literally lying on top of him, and his back was exposed,” explained Richard Kastigar, of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, who reviewed the footage.
Kastigar told reporters in Tucson that the judge was “intentionally trying to help Mr. Barber. … It’s very clear to me the judge was thinking of his fellow human more than himself.”
Barber survived, one of 13 wounded, including Giffords.
Roll, struck by a bullet in his back, was one of six who died in the rampage.
Roll’s friends and colleagues are eager to share testimony about Roll, especially his “generosity, intelligence, largeness of spirit, and … sincere love for his Catholic faith,” as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver wrote in his archdiocesan newspaper, the Denver Catholic Register.
The picture that emerges of Roll provides a remarkable model of public-private balance: The judge assiduously maintained a non-political, low profile in keeping with the judicial requirements for fairness and disengagement, while, in personal activities and relationships, he was deeply principled, committed and purposeful.
“John was very humble. Three-fourths of the parish didn’t know he was a judge,” explained Father John Lyons, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle, who knew Roll “since third grade,” when they attended an all-boys Catholic elementary school together. They also both attended the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law.
Father Lyons noted that Roll was a lector, worked with the St. Thomas More Society and was very active in the Knights of Columbus.
“He was just always a hope-filled person who treated everyone the same, from the lady in the cafeteria to the member of Congress,” the priest continued. “He respected everyone.”
As speakers highlighted at Roll’s funeral, attended by more than 1,700 people, Father Lyons emphasized the judge’s dedication to his family — his wife, Maureen, three sons and five grandchildren: “He got married young, at age 21, to a wonderful lady and had a wonderful family.”
Maureen Roll worked for Catholic Social Services in Tucson and was a counselor for teens with crisis pregnancies through the Merilac Lodge Group Home.
Impact on Clerks
Faith, family and dedication to public service are themes sounded by everyone who knew Judge Roll.
Federal Judge James Teilborg met him more than 20 years ago.
“We talked by phone almost every day,” said Teilborg, who is also a district court judge, but based in Phoenix. “He would tell me about some Scripture he read earlier that morning. We shared our joys and sorrows and what was going on with our families.”
Teilborg, a born-again Christian, said their discussions centered on court business — they rarely talked politics, but often talked Gospel. “We shared the faith based on what happened on the cross 2,000 years ago. We shared that core belief.”
Together, they participated in a summer program for Christian lawyers sponsored by the Blackstone Foundation. “Cultivating young lawyers was a passion of his, and he took special interest in his law clerks,” the judge said.
“The greatest lesson I learned from Judge Roll wasn’t about the law, but about how to integrate your faith and your work and how to have your priorities straight,” said Roll’s current law clerk, Aaron Martin. “He always had his family as the first priority. Even though he was incredibly busy at work, and did excellent work, he was well grounded in his principles.”
Roll followed Church news and subscribed to the National Catholic Register, according to Martin.
On other issues, Martin said the judge was very careful regarding what he did publicly so he would not have to recuse himself if a related case came before the court. “He certainly supported the pro-life movement, but he did not get publicly involved because of his position as a judge.”
Being a Fourth Degree member of the Knights of Columbus and a charter member of one Tucson council was one way of being supportive, indirectly. Members of the Knights served as an honor guard at his funeral.
Matthew Bowman, who clerked for Roll between 2003 and 2005, now works in the Washington, D.C., office of the Alliance Defense Fund, which is dedicated to pro-life, pro-family and religious-freedom issues.
“He was very interested in mentoring Christian law students and helping them live out faith in their profession,” said Bowman, who applied to clerk for Roll when he noticed the judge listed Knights of Columbus membership in his biography. “He encouraged me in my work and in my career. He modeled for me what it means to be a lawyer and a Christian.”
Said Bowman, “He was, really, a modern-day St. Thomas More.”
Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, D.C.