Remembering Judge Roll

It’s hard to describe the virtues of Chief Judge John Roll without making him sound too good to be true. I think that’s because he really was as good as all of us wish we could be, but know we so often aren’t. I would say he displayed “heroic” virtue — not necessarily heroic in the dramatic sense, but in the much more difficult sense of living excellence in every hour throughout each day with everyone he encountered.

The thing about this kind of excellence in a life is that it didn’t make the rest of us who knew Judge Roll feel inferior — on the contrary, he lifted up everyone he encountered by giving them attention, courtesy, and generosity of time no matter who they were. When I visited him as a student in the fledgling Ave Maria School of Law to apply to work as his law clerk, he rolled out the red carpet and treated me like I was the really important person there. When my wife and children came into the office occasionally or visited town in later years, he unfailingly made time to visit with us and remembered completely what was happening in our lives.

As I write this, I’m in my office, looking at the personal note he wrote to me after my return trip, expressing his excitement at my accepting his job offer and offering “best wishes to you, Jolene, and your new bambino!” That’s the kindness with which Judge Roll lived every relationship — with his staff, with attorneys and defendants in court, with probation officers and clerk’s-office employees, with prospective jurors, with members of Congress and court-of-appeals judges, with his beloved family, and with his Heavenly Father.

I think that for Chief Judge Roll, what unified these virtues — his intellectual attention to cases and the human dignity he honored in everyone he encountered — was, quite simply, humility. Not a false kind of humility that is somber and self-loathing. Judge Roll’s humility was something much more authentic. He knew that the people he encountered really were important persons that Someone higher than himself had placed before him, with the intention that he would serve them with the talents that he had been given. So Judge Roll poured his mind into every brief and memo, his attention into every appointment and invitation, and his kindness into every staff member and their families.

Some people have described Judge Roll as a moderate, but I do not wish to introduce politics into my reflections on Judge Roll’s life — especially since Judge Roll’s well-known devotion to the rule of law included a meticulous commitment to the duty of a judge to be non-partisan, impartial, and fair (a fact that is being confirmed by the unanimous testimonies of his character that are coming out this week). But I do think that Judge Roll combined two virtues of public service that have been only very rarely achieved except by our most worthy statesmen. He was at one and the same time passionately devoted to his fundamental principles, and yet (or, rather, because of that) unswervingly committed to displaying the highest level of courtesy and respect to everyone he encountered no matter what side of society or the courtroom or the aisle they came from. In a sense, that is the opposite of moderation, as it is sometimes understood.

I remember Chief Judge Roll having in his chambers a book of the life of Saint Thomas More. But those chambers displayed to all of us a much more important testament to Saint Thomas More and the Lord he followed: Judge Roll’s life.

— Matt Bowman clerked for Judge Roll from August 2003 to August 2005. He now works as a legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund.

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