SEATTLE – The federal judge who stopped President Donald Trump’s travel ban is a Republican appointee known for his sharp legal mind and past volunteer work for refugees.
U.S. District Judge James Robart decided in Seattle Friday to temporarily block enforcement of Trump’s executive order, which denied entry to the U.S. to refugees and to people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The decision drew a personal rebuke from Trump, who referred to Robart in a Twitter post as “this so-called judge” and labeled the ruling “ridiculous.”
While known for a mostly understated, polite demeanor on the bench, Friday was not the first time Robart has ruled in a high-profile case.
Last year, in his role overseeing a 2012 consent decree requiring reforms for Seattle police, Robart declared “black lives matter” in an emotional statement from the bench, saying he would not allow the police union to hold the city “hostage” by linking wages to constitutional 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 appealed Robart’s decision.
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.
“He will rule as he believes the law requires, and he is not afraid to make a ruling that is difficult and unpopular,” said Jenny Durkan, who was U.S. attorney for Western Washington during the Obama administration.
Robart is known as a prepared and pointed questioner of attorneys arguing cases before him.
“Anybody who walks into Judge Robart’s courtroom knows the No. 1 rule is you better be prepared,” Durkan said.
Mike McKay, a Seattle attorney and Republican who was U.S. attorney for Western Washington under President George H.W. Bush, described Robart as a moderate Republican motivated by a steady understanding of the law.
“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.
He said Robart is known for his integrity and makes it a practice to avoid socializing with people who have cases before his court.
A magna cum laude graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla, 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.
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.
Before the confirmation vote, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, cited Robart’s “wealth of trial experience” and his work on behalf of disadvantaged people, including refugees from Southeast Asia.
Robart also was 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 as a judge.
“I took a two-thirds pay cut to get death threats once a month, but I’m benefiting society,” he said.
Robart also worked with at-risk youth, and he and his wife were foster parents to six children, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., noted during a Senate confirmation hearing.
Steve Smith, a former law partner of Robart’s who now lives in Idaho, wouldn’t let Trump’s “so-called judge” comment lie.
“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.”
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 Republican 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.
Smith said the judge 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 is telling you you wrote a crummy brief, it was with a velvet hammer.”
In making his ruling Friday – an order seen not just as a judicial order, but also as a political rebuke – Robart showed that soft but firm touch.
In a calm tone, occasionally sighing, he told a packed courtroom the state of Washington had met its legal burden to show Trump’s order was causing “significant and ongoing harms” to state residents.
“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 restraining order.
Within hours, federal customs officials were informing airlines they should board passengers as they would have before Trump’s executive order was signed.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.