Robert Vance

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Robert Smith Vance Sr (born May 10, 1931; died December 16, 1989) was a judge on the 11th United States Circuit Court of Appeals in Birmingham. He is one of the few judges in American history to have been murdered as the result of his judicial service.

Vance was born in Alabama. He obtained his undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama and earned law degrees from the University of Alabama School of Law and George Washington University Law School. After military service, Vance worked as a lawyer in private practice in Birmingham from 1956 to 1977. Former Governor Don Siegelman began his law practice in Vance's office.

Vance spent much of his life working for racial equality. While he was chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party from 1966 to 1977, he successfully integrated the party, leading the first racially mixed state delegation to a Democratic National Convention in 1968. He also removed the white rooster, a symbol of white supremacy, from the party's seal. While practicing law in Birmingham, he broke the gentlemen's agreement among local lawyers that had kept African Americans off juries in the city.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated Vance to a federal judgeship on the Fifth Circuit United States Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction then included six southern states, including Alabama. Vance also served as the first chair of the Conference Committee on Space and Facilities for the Federal Court System. In 1981, the territory of the Fifth Circuit was divided into two circuits, and Vance was assigned to the 11th Circuit United States Court of Appeals, on which he served until his death.

Vance's views on racial equality were also reflected in his rulings as a federal judge. He was part of the group of judges that upheld the murder conviction of an Aryan Brotherhood member and allowed evidence that saw the conviction of Ku Klux Klansmen involved in a violent 1979 confrontation with blacks in Decatur. In September 1990, Vance reversed the decision of a lower-court ruling that had ended the 18-year-old desegregation order of Duval County, Florida schools.

On December 16, 1989, Vance was killed instantly at his home in Mountain Brook when he opened a package containing a nail bomb. Vance's wife, Helen, was seriously injured in the blast. After an intensive investigation, the federal government charged Walter Leroy Moody Jr with the murders of Judge Vance and of Savannah, Georgia civil rights attorney Robert E. Robinson, who was killed in a separate explosion two days later. Moody was also charged with mailing bombs that were defused at the Eleventh Circuit's headquarters and at the Jacksonville office of the NAACP.

Moody had previously been convicted in 1972 of possession of a bomb that had exploded in his house, and served four years in federal prison. Prosecutors speculated that Moody's motive for killing Judge Vance was revenge against a member of the court that had refused to reverse that conviction, although Vance had not actually been a member of the panel that considered Moody's earlier case. Vance became the third federal judge in American history to be assassinated as a result of his judicial service.

Moody's trial for murder and other crimes was presided over by U.S. District Judge Edward J. Devitt of the District of Minnesota, after an order was entered directing the recusal of all the circuit and district judges within the Eleventh Circuit. Moody was convicted on all counts and sentenced to multiple life terms. Subsequently, Moody was also convicted of Judge Vance's murder by an Alabama state-court jury, and sentenced to death in 1997. He remains on death row at the Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore with his sentence scheduled to be carried out in April 2018.

Vance's death prompted the committee to dedicate their U.S. Courts Design Guide to his memory. In 1990, the Federal Courthouse Building on 5th Avenue North was renamed the Robert Smith Vance Federal Building and Courthouse in his memory.

Vance's son, Robert Vance Jr, serves today as a state circuit court judge in Birmingham and is a candidate for Chief Justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court. His daughter-in-law, Joyce Vance is a former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.


  • Johnson, Frank M., Jr (1990) Reflections on the Judicial Career of Robert S. Vance, 42 Ala. L. Rev. 964
  • Carlson, Margaret (January 1, 1990) "Murder by Mail." Time.
  • Waldmen, Michael L., J. Pearson, P. McCoy, D. Peeler, R. Kandel, M. Kane, J. Tichy and M. Valentini (1991) "Footprints of a Just Man: The Case Law of Judge Robert S. Vance." Alabama Law Review.
  • Montgomery, Bill (June 29, 1991) "Moody convicted on all counts; Georgia bomber could face 7 life sentences, plus 415 years." Atlanta Journal Constitution. p. A1
  • United States v. Moody, 977 F.2d 1425 (11th Cir. 1992)
  • Jenkins, Ray (September 1997) Blind Vengeance: The Roy Moody Mail Bomb Murders Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
  • "Robert Smith Vance" (March 20, 2008) Wikipedia - accessed April 15, 2008
  • Federal Judicial Center. Biographical Directory of Federal Judges