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 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 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 travel 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 he had held no judgeship before, senators of both parties praised Robart.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced him to the judiciary committee as a man who had fostered six children with his wife. Sen. Patrick 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 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 murdered 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 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 settlements and lawsuits – the bow-tied 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’ 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 throughout his legal career.
“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” speech, a president did just that.
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.
Robart looked down at his papers and issued his order.
The travel 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.”
Robart did not bluster or make speeches. He promised to help the government file a speedy appeal to his decision, then collected his papers and recessed.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Avi Selk