In 2009, a federal judge ruled that a vague potential threat of violence against ranchers was not sufficient cause to withhold GPS data about the killing and capture of wolves in Arizona.
The judge in question was John M. Roll of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, one of six killed during Saturday's attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). A suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, is in custody.
Roll's ruling in the wolf case is just one reason he was held in relatively high esteem by environmental lawyers even though, they readily admit, they lost plenty of cases before him too.
President George H.W. Bush appointed Roll to the federal bench in 1991. The judge, who eventually became the chief judge of the district in 2006, had previously served as a federal prosecutor and state judge.
President Obama, in his speech at a memorial service for the victims yesterday, described the 63-year-old as "not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America's fidelity to the law."
Obama noted that Roll's colleagues "described him as the hardest-working judge" within the jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In the wolf GPS ruling, Roll rejected the federal government's argument that the release of GPS data could lead to violence or intimidation. The government had cited a 2004 incident in which Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service staff working in Tucson were threatened for their role in a mountain lion program.
The irony of Roll's conclusion in light of his death was not lost on Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center, who represented environmental groups in the GPS case.
"He understood the value of liberty in the face of amorphous threat," Kenna said. "He had a good reputation."
Last month, though, the 9th Circuit reversed Roll's ruling (E&ENews PM, Dec. 2, 2010).
Roll's reasoning in the GPS case was in line with his actions when, that same year, he was placed under federal protection following his ruling that allowed Mexican immigrants to file a civil rights claim against a rancher who held them at gunpoint when they crossed the border.
Kenna lost the only other case he had before Roll. He conceded that the loss, in an Endangered Species Act case over a recovery plan for gila trout, was warranted.
The Fish and Wildlife Service "had put more work" into the recovery plan than environmentalists initially thought, and Roll saw that, Kenna said.
Another Endangered Species Act ruling was probably Roll's most high-profile environmental case.
In 2009, Roll ruled against the George W. Bush administration over its failure to draw up a recovery plan or designate a critical habitat for jaguars (E&ENews PM, March 31, 2009).
In January 2010, the Obama administration responded to Roll's ruling by proposing both a recovery plan and critical habitat (Land Letter, Jan. 14, 2010).
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which won the jaguar case, was sufficiently moved by Roll's death to post a tribute on the center's website following the shooting, praising the judge's "courageous judicial rulings" that were not affected by prevailing public sentiments.
"Some judges have a reputation of being on the left or the right," Suckling said in an interview. "Judge Roll was not like that."
The jaguar case was the perfect example of Roll's desire to get to the heart of an issue and his refusal to be too deferential toward the government, he added.
"When jaguars once again roam the remote deserts and mountains of the Southwest, it will be because of Judge Roll," Suckling wrote in his online tribute.