The federal judge who ordered a halt to the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban — derided as a “so-called judge” by a bitter President Trump — is a Republican appointee whose vast legal credentials and volunteer work for poor children and refugees prompted unanimous Senate confirmation more than a decade ago.
U.S. District Judge James Robart stunned many across the country with his decision in Seattle on Friday to temporarily stop enforcement of Trump’s executive order, which denied entry to the U.S. to refugees and to people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The dramatic ruling predictably drew comments from the president via Twitter. Early Saturday, he lashed out at Robart, calling the ruling “ridiculous.” Later, Trump tweeted some more, saying due to the “terrible” decision “many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country.”
Stephen C. Smith, a former law partner of Robart’s who now lives in Idaho, couldn’t let Trump’s “so-called judge” remark stand.
“Jim Robart is a great judge, greater man and even better human being …” Smith wrote in a Facebook post. “I think he would consider it a badge of honor to be attacked on Twitter by the childish ignorant Trump.”
Known for a firm but mostly understated and polite demeanor — and ubiquitous bow tie — Robart has made national headlines before.
Last year, Robart declared “black lives matter” during a federal court hearing, saying he would not allow the Seattle police union to hold the city “hostage” by linking demands for higher wages to constitutional policing. His remarks, which drew audible reactions in the courtroom, came at the end of a deeply personal commentary in which he cited a statistic showing black people are shot dead by police at a vastly disproportionate rate.
Robart’s comments came in his role presiding over an ongoing 2012 consent decree requiring Seattle to reform police practices to address Department of Justice allegations of excessive force and biased policing.
His ruling Friday came in a case brought by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, granting the state’s request for an immediate restraining order blocking further enforcement of the travel ban.
The Trump administration Saturday filed notice of its appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Classic Washington Republican”
Some longtime friends and colleagues said Robart is known for careful legal analysis and a strong sense of the judiciary’s role in checking unconstitutional excesses by Congress or the executive branch.
In an interview, Smith said anyone attacking Robart as some kind of overreaching liberal judicial activist doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
“Jim Robart is not a liberal. He is a classic Washington Republican,” Smith said, putting the judge in the moderate tradition of former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.
“He truly believes in the application of the Constitution and that due process and the Establishment Clause mean what they say,” Smith said, referring to the Constitution’s ban on government favoring a particular religion.
Trump’s executive order, signed Jan. 27, is aimed, the president has said, at providing “extreme vetting” for persons from unstable nations breeding terrorist threats against the U.S.
A key argument in Washington’s case against the travel ban is that it was motivated by bias. Ferguson’s complaint cited Trump’s campaign comments, including his December 2015 call for “a total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country.
In Friday’s court hearing, Robart expressed skepticism that such statements by themselves could prove religious bias in the executive order. But he also sharply questioned Department of Justice attorneys over the seven predominantly Muslim nations singled out by the ban, demanding to know whether citizens of those countries had carried out any terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. The lawyers did not provide examples.
That sort of grilling is in keeping with Robart’s reputation, said Jenny Durkan, who served as U.S. attorney for Western Washington during the Obama administration. “Anybody who walks into Judge Robart’s courtroom knows the number one rule is you better be prepared,” she said.
Durkan added Robart makes decisions based on the law, “and he is not afraid to make a ruling that is difficult and unpopular.”
Mike McKay, a Seattle attorney and Republican who served as U.S. attorney for Western Washington under President George H.W. Bush, described Robart as a moderate Republican with impeccable credentials.
“It’s probably important to note this is a guy who was Republican before he was appointed to the bench and ruled in this (executive-order case),” said McKay, who with Durkan was on the selection panel that recommended Robart’s appointment.
“We must intervene”
A magna cum laude graduate of Whitman College, Robart earned his law degree at Georgetown University. As an attorney in private practice, he worked on complex commercial litigation and rose to managing partner of the Seattle-based law firm Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, now known as Lane Powell.
Robart, 69, also has served as chairman of the board of trustees for Whitman College. In a 2008 talk with students there, he said federal judges can do a lot of good and noted that he’d left a lucrative legal practice to serve in the judiciary.
“I took a two-thirds pay cut to get death threats once a month, but I’m benefiting society,” he said.
President George W. Bush nominated Robart for the federal bench in 2003. The U.S. Senate voted 99-0 in June 2004 to confirm him.
Senators of both parties noted he had been vetted and recommended by a bipartisan selection panel in Washington state.
Before the confirmation vote, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, cited Robart’s “wealth of trial experience” as well as his work on behalf of disadvantaged persons, including representing refugees from Southeast Asia.
Robart also worked with at-risk youth, and he and his wife were foster parents to six children, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray noted during a confirmation hearing.
While Robart has been vaulted into the national news, Smith said that his friend and mentor is not known as attention-seeking or prone to “fist pounding” or “histrionics.”
His demeanor has generally been understated and courteous, Smith said. “Even when he was telling you you wrote a crummy brief, it was with a velvet hammer.”
In making his ruling Friday — a move seen not just as a judicial order but a political rebuke — Robart showed that quietly firm touch.
In a calm tone, occasionally sighing, he told a packed courtroom that the state of Washington had met its legal burden to show Trump’s travel-ban order was causing “significant and ongoing harms” to state residents — justifying the extraordinary remedy of a restraining order.
“The court concludes that the circumstances that brought it here today are such that we must intervene to fulfill the judiciary’s constitutional role in our tri-part government,” he said, granting the immediate, nationwide order.
Within hours, federal customs officials were informing airlines they should board passengers as they would have before Trump’s executive order was signed.
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Trump’s ‘so-called judge’ is a Bush appointed political activist highly regarded in liberal Seattle,