FBA WDWA News The Honorable James L. Robart by Lindsay Halm
THE HONORABLE JAMES L. ROBART
In Service of the Western District of Washington, the Northwest, & Beyond
By Lindsay L. Halm
|Just inside the door to Judge Robart’s chambers is a pile of partially-folded post-it notes, gathered in a glazed ceramic bowl. I can’t resist the intrigue and, without touching, lean over and peek inside the one sitting on top: it reads, “Jim – 5pm.” I find out later it is Judge Robart’s (winning) prediction of when the jury will finish its deliberations, towering over the failed guesses of his bailiff, law clerks, and externs. But the must-see detail in the revolving decor of Judge Robart’s chambers is beyond the reception area; perched on the transom ledge of one of the clerks’ offices: a neon rainbow of marshmallow peeps peering through the glass – as if to remind the mahogany-colored woodwork and cabinetry not to take itself too seriously.|
Returning to chambers as a former law clerk is a bit like what I imagine an older sibling feels when she returns home from college. Loved, but somewhat displaced; there are new, inside jokes – a closeness she can no longer occupy. When I visit chambers to interview Judge Robart for this article, that sense of being on the outside is more pronounced than ever. He had issued his order restraining President Trump’s travel ban just a few weeks prior; and overnight, he and his bowtie are everywhere – from CNN to Comedy Central to the President’s tweets. “Five things you need to know about Judge Robart” populate the dark corners of the Web. My judge is the subject of clickbait. Yet, I cannot ask him: What happens next? How are you coping? Does the hate mail worry you?
The closest Judge Robart came to talking about the decision that day was as we said our goodbyes; I told him (again) how I admired his courage and wished him good luck. He gave a weary smile, complimented the good work of his law clerks, and referred to the importance of friends and family during challenging times. As I should have known, he was entirely unchanged from the Judge I knew before he became a cause célèbre. It matters not what decision or achievement or career-marker we talk about, Judge Robart will not take credit for a lick of it. Ask him about being nominated to the bench and he’ll quickly tell you he was just “background” for his more qualified friend, Judge Martinez.
“He was entirely unchanged from the Judge I knew before he became a cause célèbre. It matters not what decision or achievement or career-marker we talk about, Judge Robart will not take credit for a lick of it.”
Or take his 207-page decision in Microsoft v. Motorola that changed the trajectory of patent litigation across the globe. The legal principle in that decision should, of course, be referred to as the “Robart Rule.” But it never stuck because everywhere Judge Robart went he called it the “Fortney Doctrine” -named for the law clerk who worked on the case with him. And then there was the time at the end of a 90-minute status conference with the Department of Justice and the Seattle Police when Robart declared, “black lives matter,” after reciting the lopsided casualty statistics that mark our African-American communities. If you mention this to him, he’ll ask if you watched the rest of the hearing, which ends with Judge Robart reading into the record a list of American cities made infamous for deadly attacks on police officers, including our own Lakewood, Washington. True to form, he dismisses making history that day; he says he was just doing his job – to give voice to the people impacted by the court’s decisions. And, it seems, laying the groundwork necessary to repair the relationship between communities of color and police.
If you dare play the post-it game, your odds of winning are abysmal. Judge Robart nails it nine times out of ten, or rather, his is the closest guess without going over (time-honored “Price is Right” rules apply). The man knows juries. Before taking the bench, he tried some 100 cases to verdict – many in his first decade as a young attorney defending small P.I. cases in far-flung Washington counties from Mason to Benton. And later, representing local and international companies in his long, successful career at Lane Powell. When I ask Judge Robart how the profession has changed over the years, he laments the decline in trials and the need for young lawyers to get into court more often. (Those practitioners who have appeared before him for oral argument already know he likes to call on the associate who wrote the brief, much to the vexation of the partner who has just assumed the podium.) When I ask how the profession has improved, Judge Robart doesn’t hesitate: diversity, which he says means more talent to draw from and, in turn, better service to our clients.
“When I ask how the profession has improved, Judge Robart doesn’t hesitate: diversity, which he says means more talent to draw from and, in turn, better service to our clients. “
Born and raised in Richmond Beach, Washington, Judge Robart’s love of the Northwest is reflected everywhere in chambers. Filets of Chinook salmon (caught by Judge Robart) line the freezer’s shelf in the kitchen; a red Walla Walla “Sweets” Minor League Baseball hat sits on his credenza; traditional turquoise, red, and black Northwest tribal prints of eagles and orcas hang in the conference room above a row of matching 1920s era turquoise chairs he salvaged from the old federal courthouse. The other walls are dotted with the watercolors and collages of Mari Jalbing, spouse to Judge Robart and all-around force of kindness in the world. Judge Robart has also remained close to his alma mater, Whitman College, including as former chair of the Board of Trustees. The afternoon I visit chambers, there are two baseball gloves, each cradling a ball, nestled among the papers on his massive desk. He explains that Whitman President Kathleen Murray has asked him to join her in throwing out the first pitch for the Whitman “Blues– game that Saturday at Safeco field. Apparently, the gloves’ owners -both courthouse staff – had the same idea: Judge Robart should warm up his arm. Home plate is 60 feet, 6 inches away from the mound, after all.
I ask Judge Robart to tell me what about his time at Whitman inspired him to give back to the college. He praised the school’s sense of community and commitment to increase diversity in all its forms. When I pressed him to talk about his time as a student, he spoke of being the first generation in his family to go to college and how a liberal arts education opened his mind and shaped his conscience. He still remembers reading Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem in one of his classes
- the one that begins, “First they came”
- the one that calls out cowardice and complacency in the face of tyranny.
Near the end of the interview, I remind Judge Robart of the time he was invited to the University of Washington to guest teach a trial advocacy class. Ten years later, I still remember what he told the students: imagine the animal that defines who you are and never be anything else in front of a jury. (“If you are a mouse, don’t try and be a lion.”). What animal is Judge Robart? “An owl,” he says (after making me go
“He demands the utmost in preparedness from every lawyer who walks into his courtroom.”
first). “Observant; thoughtful, I hope.” Then, after a pause, he grins and adds, “But I can also swoop down for the kill.” Maybe he supplied this second part because we share a love of bird-watching and he and I both know the owl is a fierce predator, and not just the wise and gentle character portrayed in the storybooks. But maybe he was, at last, acknowledging his reputation as a judge. He demands the utmost in preparedness from every lawyer who walks into his courtroom. Surely drawing from his days as a managing partner, he pushes attorneys to advance the profession, submit better briefs, make stronger arguments, avoid petty disputes, take on as much pro bono work as possible, and may God help you if you forget to mute the ringer on your cell phone during argument.
It is dark outside when I finish asking my questions. As I pack up my pad and pen, Judge Robart asks, “When are you going to ask me about ‘serendipity’?” He was referring to everything from the circumstances of his ascendancy to the bench to the randomness of the Clerk’s case-assignment wheel. I decline. Luck has nothing to do with it. He has made his mark on the Western District, the Northwest, and beyond. Bravo, Judge.
Lindsay L. Halm is former law clerk to Judge Robart.