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James Robertson

May 18, 1938September 7, 2019

The Honorable James Robertson (retired), a beloved and distinguished federal judge revered for his fairness, integrity, compassion, and humor, died suddenly on Saturday, surrounded by family, at the age of 81.

Born in 1938 in Cleveland, Ohio to Frederick and Doris Robertson, James (or Jim, as most knew him) spent his childhood years in Oberlin, Ohio. He attended Western Reserve Academy on scholarship, then Princeton University on a Navy ROTC scholarship. At Princeton he was editor of the Princeton Tiger, Princeton’s humor magazine, and studied in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

After graduation he married his love, Berit Selma Persson, of Ange, Sweden, served in the Navy as a gunnery officer and later as Lieutenant, and studied law at the George Washington University Law School from 1962-1965, where he was Editor in Chief of the law review and graduated first in his class. He joined the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now WilmerHale), where he practiced from 1965 to 1994, with an important hiatus from 1969 to 1972. During this period he left the firm to serve as Chief Litigation Counsel at the Jackson, Mississippi office of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and also as that organization’s National Director in Washington. Subsequently, Jim returned to Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and also continued to work for civil rights as a Board Member, and later as Co-Chair of the Lawyers’ Committee, as President of the Southern Africa Legal Services and Legal Education Project, and as President of the DC Bar.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated him to the U.S. Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, where he served for almost 16 years. He was appointed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), from which he resigned abruptly. After leaving the bench in 2010, Jim worked with the Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Service (JAMS) as a private arbitrator and mediator.

Jim’s family and friends were deeply important to him, and early in his career he took a six-month sabbatical so that he and Berit could take their kids out of school and travel together, a formative experience for his three children, Stephen, Catherine, and Peter. When not working, Jim was by turns an amateur photographer, choral singer (he had perfect pitch), guitar-player, sailor, do-it-yourself handyman who built bookcases among other things, avid reader, and an occasional gourmet cook. He took a genuine interest in, and learned from, everyone he met, including the nurses at the hospital where he recently passed away.

Jim leaves behind his beloved wife of nearly 60 years, Berit Persson Robertson, whom he called his “north star.” Their children had planned a 60th anniversary celebration this month on the Eastern shore for them, which will instead be spent in celebration of his life.

He also leaves behind three children and their spouses, and six grandchildren: Stephen Robertson (Marion Williams) and daughters Katherine and Ellie; Catherine (William Rice), and children Sophie and Walter; and Peter (Heidi Gorovitz), and children Isabel and Benjamin. He is survived by his twin sister Ellen Wallace and her husband Don Wallace, their three children and six grandchildren; and his nephews Mike and Jim Driver, sons of his deceased sister Martha, and their many loved ones and children. He was also loved and will be missed by everyone in Berit’s large family in Sweden.

A memorial gathering for friends and family will be held at 2pm Saturday, October 5th, at the Georgetown Presbyterian Church, 3115 P St., NW, in Washington D.C. All are welcome, though seating may be limited, and there may be additional memorial services held by members of the legal profession, to be posted on Legacy.com in the near future, under his name. Those wishing to make commemorative contributions in lieu of flowers may send them to The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.


5 October

Memorial Service

2:00 pm

Georgetown Presbyterian Church

3115 P Street NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20007


James Robertson

have a memory or condolence to add?

Brian Taptich

September 19, 2019

A sad day. So sorry for your loss. Will find a quiet moment later today to look up, and stick my tongue out at him one last time.

Peter Connell

September 12, 2019

Jim and I have been close friends for over 50 years, since we served together at the Lawyers’ Committee. The Ancients taught us that life is too short to befriend everyone, so we should cultivate our closest friendships with those whose nobility of character, dignity and integrity will strengthen and inspire us. That’s the kind of friend and exemplar Jim has always been to me, to my family, and to so many others fortunate to have known him.
We are so grateful to have had him in our lives.
Peter Connell

Kent Syverud

September 12, 2019

Jim Robertson taught me how to be a lawyer. I worked for him for two years at Wilmer. He was smart, funny, savvy, insightful, and among the kindest mentors I ever had. In the decades I have been teaching law, I have repeatedly used Jim’s career as a lawyer and judge as an example to my students — an example that a great and successful lawyer can also be decent and ethical. I am so grateful he lived. My deepest condolences to the whole family in this tough time.
Kent Syverud
Syracuse University

Kristen Clarke

September 11, 2019

We are most saddened by the news of the passing of Judge Robertson. Judge Robertson served the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in many capacities throughout his life. From 1969 to 1972, Judge Robertson served with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, as chief counsel of the Committee’s litigation offices in Jackson, Mississippi, and as director. He joined the Board in 1973, and went on to serve as Co-Chair from 1985-1987. We extend our condolences to Judge Robertson's family and friends. -- Kristen Clarke, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law