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Senate Likely To Confirm Rollins As Massachusetts U.S. Attorney

Rachael Rollins, speaking Tuesday, June 2, 2020 at the gates of the Massachusetts State House. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Rachael Rollins, speaking Tuesday, June 2, 2020 at the gates of the Massachusetts State House. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The U.S. Senate is likely to confirm Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins' nomination for U.S. attorney in Massachusetts this fall, legal experts say.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias says a rejection is unlikely because Rollins was chosen based on recommendations from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. In addition, the Senate doesn't typically even hold hearings on U.S. attorney nominations, instead giving more scrutiny to cabinet members and other nominees.

"The process is not one that lends itself to rejecting a nominee, especially if the person has home state senators' support and the president's support," Tobias said. "So it has happened, but it's unlikely to happen."

Rollins, who was elected in 2018, has garnered national attention as part of a group of "progressive prosecutors" trying to reform the criminal legal system and its focus on punishment. And she has won both praise and criticism for her outspoken positions.

Former Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, who left office in February, expressed concern about some of Rollins' comments.

Lellin pointed to a scuffle last year when Rollins was videotaped threatening to arrest a television camera crew who arrived at her home asking her to comment on a story about her involvement in a traffic incident.

"When you wield that kind of power as U.S. attorney, I think you have to control a little more what you say," he said.  "If I threatened a reporter with arrest on video, I would have been fired."

Lelling, a Trump appointee who took on high profile cases such as the "Varsity Blues" college admissions case, expects that the White House chose Rollins because it is seeking U.S. attorneys who want to reform the criminal legal system.

In nominating Rollins along with seven other U.S. attorney candidates, the Biden administration said all eight nominees were "historic firsts." If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Rollins would be the first Black woman to serve as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.

"I think you're seeing strong preference for diversity in the U.S. attorney class," Lelling said. "The Trump class did not have that much racial or even gender diversity. And I think you're also seeing an interest in picking reform minded federal prosecutors."

John Amabile, incoming president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he hopes Rollins moves away from strict federal sentencing guidelines and doesn't tone down her reform efforts.

"What I would be hoping for is that she tones things up and provides leadership in assessing what cases should be brought, what the priorities should be and significantly how people should be treated in terms of sentencing," Amabile said.

But Rollins' positions have resulted in some backlash — even from the Baker administration which now has to appoint her replacement until the election next year.

Baker's public safety secretary Thomas Turco publicly criticized Rollins decision not to prosecute some low level non-violent crimes.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who plans to pick someone to serve the remainder of Rollins' term once she is confirmed, was asked Monday what qualities he's looking for in the next Suffolk County district attorney.

"I think the biggest one is sort of what I would describe as experience, intelligence and some degree of support from the community," Baker said.  That's generally been the way we've done this when we've made these appointments."

Baker said he will consider any recommendations Rollins might make for her replacement. Among those mentioned as possible replacements are Rahsaan Hall, an activist who worked with the ACLU of Massachusetts and Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty.

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Many key figures in the Massachusetts law enforcement community also congratulated Rollins on her nomination.

The Massachusetts Bar Association said Rollins is the right choice to lead the office at this time. Association president Denise Murphy said Rollins has learned from the controversies she's weathered during her tenure and will likely continue her reform efforts on the federal level.

"She learned from being in the Suffolk DA's office that you have to be a lot more aware of all the ramifications of what you're going to say, " Murphy said. "She is a lightning rod no doubt about that but that is sometimes what it takes to make change."

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey tweeted congratulations to Rollins "on her historic nomination." And Boston police Superintendent-in-Chief Gregory Long issued a statement of congratulations.

"When confirmed, I look forward to working with District Attorney Rollins in her new role and continuing our work and honest dialogue centered around the issues of crime and reform," Long's statement said. "This nomination is both prestigious and historic, and I wish Rachael well throughout the nomination process. "

The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association was muted in its statement. Association President Michael, O'Keefe would only say that the few district attorneys he has spoken with are pleased by Rollins nomination. In 2019, O'Keefe wrote a Boston Globe editorial which didn't mention Rollins by name but criticized what he called "social justice district attorneys."

Criminal defense attorney Rosemary Scapicchio, who has worked in both state and federal courts, said she expects Rollins to continue to try to implement reforms similar to those she's worked on as district attorney. But Scapicchio acknowledges her role as U.S. attorney will be different.

"In the federal court, its going to be a little bit more difficult," Scapicchio said. " I think she'll be as aggressive as she's always been, as forward as she's always been. But there is a chain that she needs to go up to effectuate change and she used to be at the top of that chain and now she's not."

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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