By Gene Johnson
SEATTLE — The Seattle judge derided by President Donald Trump on Twitter Saturday after blocking Trump’s executive order on immigration is known for his conservative legal views, for a record of helping disadvantaged children that includes fostering six of them, and for dramatically declaring “black lives matter” during a hearing on police reform in 2015.
Judge James L. Robart, 69, was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2004, following a distinguished 30-year career in private practice that included his selection to the American College of Trial Lawyers, an honor bestowed on less than 1 percent of lawyers.
The judge made the most high-profile ruling of his tenure Friday when he temporarily invalidated Trump’s ban on travel to the U.S. from seven primarily Muslim nations. Washington state sued to block the order — with support from Minnesota and major corporations including Microsoft, Amazon and Expedia — arguing that it’s unconstitutional and would harm its residents, and Robart held that the state was likely correct.
The ruling did not sit well with the president, who on Twitter called Robart a “so-called judge” and the ruling “ridiculous.” The president later falsely claimed the decision meant “anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.”
The comments are unlikely to sway Robart, said those who know him.
“Jim will give a wry smile, maybe adjust his bowtie a little bit and go back to doing his business,” said former Seattle U.S. attorney John McKay, who worked with Robart for a decade at the law firm of Lane Powell Spears Lubersky. “He’s a very careful judge, and he’s conservative in the sense he looks at the law and tries to determine what that is, not what he wants. He’s conservative in his review of the law, but courageous in his application of it.”
Another former Seattle U.S. attorney, Jenny Durkan, called Robart exacting: “We won some in front of him and we lost some in front of him, but we knew anytime we walked into his courtroom we’d better be prepared.”
That was evident Friday when Robart grilled a Justice Department lawyer, Michelle Bennett, asking if foreign nationals from the seven countries named in the order had been arrested for plots in the U.S. since 9/11. Bennett said she didn’t know.
“The answer to that is none, best I can tell,” Robart said. “You’re here arguing on behalf of someone that says we have to protect the United States from these individuals coming from these countries, and there’s no support for that.”
He added that he was tasked with determining whether the president’s order was “grounded in facts, as opposed to fiction.”
The moment Trump lawyer tells judge Robart of travel ban: “We actually don’t think you’re supposed to look at whether it’s rationally based” pic.twitter.com/u9PRy4cKGT
— Rob S⬅︎Silver Surfer (@RobPulseNews) February 5, 2017
Robart, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, is an expert in patent and intellectual property law, and he issued a landmark decision — later upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — in a lawsuit between Microsoft and Motorola that provided guidance in how to calculate reasonable rates for use of another company’s patents.
He’s considered a tough sentencing judge in criminal matters, especially in cases involving white-collar defendants, and he has overseen reforms at the Seattle Police Department since 2012, when it agreed to make changes in response to Justice Department findings that its officers were too quick to use force, especially in low-level situations.
Robart was holding a hearing in that case in summer 2015 — a time fraught with tension over violence by and against police officers around the country — when he surprised the courtroom by adopting the mantra of protesters.
“The importance of this issue to me is best demonstrated by the news,” he said, shaking his head and sighing heavily. “According to FBI statistics, police shootings resulting in death involve 41 percent black people, despite being only 20 percent of the population living in those cities. Forty-one percent of the casualties, 20 percent of the population: Black lives matter.”
Robart donated to the state Republican party and to GOP candidates before becoming a judge, but was picked for the bench with the help of a bipartisan selection panel. He helped lead his law firm’s efforts to provide free legal services to those who couldn’t afford them, and he served as president of Seattle Children’s Home, which offers mental health services and special education for at-risk children.
And as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., noted during his confirmation hearing, he and his wife had fostered six children themselves.
Robart drew high praise from Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who cited his “exceptional qualifications” and his work representing southeast Asian refugees.
“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,” Robart said then. “If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed by the Senate, I will take that experience to the courtroom with me, recognize that you need to treat everyone with dignity and with respect, and to engage them so that when they leave the courtroom they feel like they had a fair trial and that they were treated as a participant in the system.”