The judge who stopped the ban

Those who have worked with James L. Ro­bart voice praise and re­spect

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY AVI SELK avi.selk@wash­post.com

James L. Ro­bart was ap­pointed by pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

Judge James L. Ro­bart wore a bow tie to the hear­ing, opened with a joke and fin­ished with a thun­der­clap.

He is known for that sort of thing.

“The am­i­cus law pro­fes­sors,” Ro­bart said Fri­day, not­ing the many groups that waited in his Seat­tle court­room to ar­gue for or against a mo­tion to halt Pres­i­dent Trump’s en­try ban. “Sounds like the three ami­gos.”

Peo­ple laughed, de­spite the ten­sion. The fed­eral judge had a habit of mix­ing soft speech and ex­tra­or­di­nary pro­nounce­ments.

At the end of the hear­ing, with no jokes or spare words, Ro­bart halted Trump’s ban and po­ten­tially changed the fate of cit­i­zens of seven ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries and tens of thou­sands of refugees who had been de­nied en­try into the United States.

His or­der chal­lenges a White House that had spent all week de­fend­ing the en­try ban.

“The opin­ion of this so-called judge, which es­sen­tially takes law-en­force­ment away from our coun­try, is ridicu­lous and will be over­turned!” Trump said in a tweet Satur­day morn­ing.

But Ro­bart has been called judge for more than a decade. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush nom­i­nated him to the fed­eral court for Wash­ing­ton state’s western district court in 2004, choos­ing him from a short­list of nom­i­nees se­lected by a bi­par­ti­san com­mis­sion.

Al­though Ro­bart had held no judge­ship, se­na­tors of both par­ties praised him.

Sen. Patty Mur­ray (D-Wash.) in­tro­duced him to the ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee as a man who had fos­tered six chil­dren with his wife. Sen. Pa­trick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) went over Ro­bart’s 30 years as a lawyer — up to his work at the time as man­ag­ing part­ner at a Seat­tle law firm. Ro­bart grad­u­ated from Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Law Cen­ter in 1973.

Sen. Or­rin G. Hatch (R-Utah) noted Ro­bart’s “rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the dis­ad­van­taged” — in­clud­ing his work rep­re­sent­ing “South­east Asian refugees.”

Asked about such work at his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, Ro­bart gave a short speech about fair­ness in the court­room.

“I was in­tro­duced to peo­ple who, in many times, felt that the le­gal sys­tem was stacked against them or was un­fair,” Ro­bart told the se­na­tors. “Work­ing with peo­ple who have an im­me­di­ate need and an im­me­di­ate prob­lem that you are able to help with is the most sat­is­fy­ing as­pect of the prac­tice of law.”

“Well, thank you,” Hatch said. “That is a great an­swer.”

No one op­posed his con­fir­ma­tion.

In his 13 years on the fed­eral bench, the judge handed down crim­i­nal sen­tences no lighter than the law rec­om­mended — 78 months in prison for a crack dealer, life for a man who killed a woman on a Na­tive Amer­i­can reser­va­tion two decades ear­lier.

His job as a fed­eral judge got more com­pli­cated af­ter Seat­tle po­lice fa­tally shot John T. Wil­liams — a hear­ing-im­paired wood­carver who did not put down his carv­ing knife one day in 2010.

Hun­dreds sur­rounded a Seat­tle po­lice sta­tion to protest Wil­liams’s death, which had fol­lowed other ac­cu­sa­tions of po­lice bru­tal­ity in the city. A Jus­tice De­part­ment investigation “found rou­tine and wide­spread use of ex­ces­sive force by of­fi­cers,” the Seat­tle Times re­ported. That led to set­tle­ments and law­suits — the bowtied Ro­bart pre­sid­ing.

“Well, there cer­tainly are a lot of you,” he said in Au­gust. His tie was green, his beard as white as ever.

In the years since Wil­liams’s death, the Seat­tle case had evolved from pas­sion­ate protests and a fed­eral investigation into a string of hear­ings to over­see po­lice re­forms.

Au­gust’s hear­ing was one of many, and Ro­bart gave no in­di­ca­tion at the be­gin­ning that it would be any­thing of spe­cial note. He lis­tened to each side, as he had many times be­fore. When it was his turn to speak, he went over sched­ules, com­ments and con­sent de­crees to come. Then he took a deep breath. “I will now step back from my very pre­cise le­gal prac­tice and give you the fol­low­ing ob­ser­va­tion — from me,” he said.

He spoke of the po­lice — their train­ing and ac­count­abil­ity and lead­er­ship. “The men and women who go out and walk around Seat­tle and proudly wear the Seat­tle Po­lice De­part­ment uni­form,” he said, “are en­ti­tled to know what they may and may not do.”

He breathed in again. Then he spoke of protests against po­lice that had spread across the coun­try, and FBI statis­tics show­ing that black peo­ple are twice as likely to be shot dead by po­lice as their share of the pop­u­la­tion would war­rant.

“Black lives mat­ter,” the judge said.

His words, the Seat­tle Times noted, caused “a star­tled, au­di­ble re­ac­tion” in the court­room. Here was a fed­eral judge echo­ing a slo­gan used by pro­test­ers.

Ro­bart was not done. “Black peo­ple are not alone in this,” he went on. “His­pan­ics, Asians, Na­tive Amer­i­cans are also in­volved. And lastly and im­por­tantly: Po­lice deaths in Dal­las, Ba­ton Rouge, Min­neapo­lis and let’s not for­get Lake­wood, Wash­ing­ton, re­mind us of the im­por­tance of what we are do­ing.”

If his words were ex­tra­or­di­nary, he gave no in­di­ca­tion that day. Ro­bart thanked every­one be­fore him “for your hard work” and walked out the door be­hind him.

“It was an in­ter­est­ing mes­sage to the com­mu­nity from a white Repub­li­can fed­eral judge,” said Mike McKay, a for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney who used to part­ner with Ro­bart in pri­vate prac­tice and has known him for years.

“It’s pretty clear what he was try­ing to do — show I’m lis­ten­ing and sen­si­tive to all par­ties.”

McKay co-chaired the bi­par­ti­san com­mit­tee that put Ro­bart on a short­list in 2003, when Bush chose him to be­come a fed­eral judge. His Demo­cratic co-chair, Jenny Durkan, agreed with McKay’s take on the judge.

“If you were to type­cast a con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can judge, it would look a lot like Judge Ro­bart,” said Durkan, who be­came a U.S. at­tor­ney af­ter Ro­bart joined the fed­eral bench and ar­gued be­fore him in the Seat­tle hear­ings.

“I’ve felt Judge Ro­bart’s wrath and also had rul­ings that went my way,” she said. “He’s go­ing to make the rul­ing he thinks is the right rul­ing and not worry about who dis­agrees with him — even the pres­i­dent of the United States.”

Half a year af­ter Ro­bart’s “black lives mat­ter” state­ment, a pres­i­dent did just that.

Ro­bart lis­tened to ar­gu­ments of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and to those who op­pose its en­try ban, then thanked every­one for their “thought­ful” re­marks.

He tried to tamp down any an­tic­i­pa­tion. A judge’s job, Ro­bart said, “is not to judge the wis­dom of any pol­icy” but only whether it was le­gal.

He would not even do that at the mo­ment, he said, but merely con­sider whether Trump’s or­der should be blocked tem­po­rar­ily to pre­vent “im­me­di­ate and ir­repara­ble in­jury” to the peo­ple it af­fects.

Robert looked down at his papers and is­sued his or­der.

The en­try ban must be halted not just in Wash­ing­ton state, he said, but for all “fed­eral de­fen­dants and all their re­spec­tive of­fi­cers, agents, ser­vants, em­ploy­ees, at­tor­neys and per­sons act­ing in con­cert . . . at all U.S. bor­ders and port of en­try, pend­ing fur­ther or­der from this court.”

No one said a word. Ro­bart then re­cessed and walked away.

James Ro­bart

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