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Judge James Robertson, Former D.C. Bar President, Passes Away

By John Murph

September 10, 2019

James Robertson

Former U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge James Robertson, who served as president of the D.C. Bar from 1991 to 1992 and advocated for increased diversity in the legal profession, passed away on Saturday, September 7, at the age of 81. 

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, Robertson served as a federal judge for 15 years, presiding over more than 1,000 civil cases that involved banking, food and drug regulations, employment discrimination, antitrust, international arbitration, and other government regulatory issues. Robertson also served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court between May 2002 and December 2005.

Some of Robertson’s most notable rulings include Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006) on military trials at Guantánamo Bay; Schroer v. Library of Congress (2008), a groundbreaking decision on discrimination in the workplace against transgender employees; and Gregory S. Hollister v. Barry Soetoro (2009), which sought to invalidate former President Barack Obama’s candidacy over questions on his citizenship. Robertson also wrote more than 600 opinions that reflected his clear and principled devotion to the rule of law.  

Before becoming a federal judge, Robertson was an intellectual property litigator at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr for more than 20 years. While at the firm, he also served as president of the D.C. Bar, where he developed initiatives to increase opportunities for minorities in the legal profession, especially at Big Law firms. Along with civil rights activist and business executive Vernon Jordan, Robertson co-led the Conference on Opportunities for Minorities in the Legal Profession. 

“[The conference] made a genuine and permanent difference in how law firms in our city think about the issues of race, gender and ethnicity, and it dramatically improved the professional opportunities for minority lawyers and — in turn — law firm diversity in the District of Columbia,” Judge Paul L. Friedman remarked in a December 2009 speech during a portrait ceremony for Robertson. “In this and in other efforts, Jim ran the Bar with his characteristic grace, humor, humility, and purpose. He saw the Bar as an agent of change for good. Through his efforts, both the Bar and the profession became more inclusive.”  

D.C. Bar CEO Robert J. Spagnoletti remembers Robertson as a “exceptional leader” and a “true legend” of the Bar. “Judge Robertson challenged law firms to reexamine their minority attorney hiring and promotion policies, striving to improve the diversity of our profession,” Spagnoletti says. “He provided numerous mentoring opportunities for young lawyers, took great pride in introducing new lawyers to the D.C. Bar, and served as a model of civility in the profession.” 

Robertson’s fight for racial justice was also reflected in his work with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, where he served as chief counsel for its litigation offices in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1969 to 1970. He later served as the committee’s national director in Washington, D.C., from 1970 to 1972, and as president of the Southern Africa Legal Services and Legal Education Project between 1989 and 1994.  

Robertson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 18, 1938. In addition to a twin sister, he had one older sister. His father, Frederick Irving Robertson, worked for Cleveland Trust Bank and later the investment banking firm Otis & Company. His mother, Doris Byars Robertson, was a psychiatric social worker. When Robertson was between two and three years old, the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, and then to Dayton, Ohio, during his teens.  

In Dayton, Robertson attended public high school his freshman year before transferring to the Western Reserve Academy boarding school in Hudson, Ohio. Afterward, he attended the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University on a Navy ROTC scholarship, graduating cum laude in 1959. 

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy after college graduation and achieved the rank of lieutenant. After leaving the military in 1964, Robertson pursued his law degree at The George Washington University Law School, where he graduated in 1965. The same year he earned his law degree, Robertson started working at WilmerHale, where he practiced for four years, returning in 1972 and staying at the firm until his appointment as federal judge. 

After his retirement from the bench, Robertson joined the alternative dispute resolution firm JAMS as a mediator, arbitrator, and discovery master for disputes in a variety of areas, including bankruptcy, business/commercial, class action/mass tort, employment, real estate, intellectual property, and securities law. 

“Judge Robertson was a role model and hero for me and many in the legal profession,” says D.C. Bar President Susan Hoffman. “His career and life were all about service to others and to the profession — from his days working in the civil rights movement with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to his term as D.C. Bar president to his years as a well-respected U.S. District Court judge. As many others will likely note, Judge Robertson always acted with integrity, moral conviction, civility, and kindness.” 

Judge Robertson is survived by his wife, Berit, and children Peter, Steve, and Catherine.