Thursday, February 22, 2018
Politics

Meet the federal judge who halted Trump's travel ban

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

He was 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 Donald Trump's travel 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 tens of thousands of refugees, Muslims and others around the world who had been denied entry into the United States.

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

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

But Robart had been called judge for more than a decade. President George W. Bush nominated him to the federal court for Washington's western district court in 2004. Though he had held no judgeship before, 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 Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, where he handled mostly commercial law cases.

Utah's Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch noted Robart's "representation of the disadvantaged" - including his work representing "southeast Asian refugees."

"I was introduced to people who, in many times, felt that the legal system was stacked against them or was unfair," Robart replied."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, a Republican, 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 murdered a woman on a Native American reservation two decades earlier.

His job as a federal judge got more complicated after Seattle police shot and killed John T. Williams - a partially deaf woodcarver who did not put down his carving knife one day in 2010.

Hundreds surrounded a Seattle police station to protest Williams' 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 a long series of settlements and lawsuits - the bow-tied Robart presiding.

"Well, there certainly are a lot of you!" he said last August. His tie was green, his beard as white as ever.

In the years since Williams' death, the Seattle case had evolved from passionate protests and a federal investigation into an endless 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 argue, as he had done 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 - 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. "They 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.

Half a year later, a country troubled by different matters waited on the judge's word.

Robart listened for nearly an hour to arguments of the federal government and to those who oppose its travel ban, then thanked everyone for their "thoughtful" remarks.

He tried to tramp 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 travel ban must be halted not just in Washington, 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. In his manner, Robart recessed and walked away.

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