Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins nomination to become the top federal law enforcement official in Massachusetts hit a snag Thursday when the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked over her nomination.
After fiery debate where some committee members called Rollins "a radical" who is trying to "destroy the criminal justice system from within," the Judiciary Committee voted 11-11, along party lines, on her nomination to become U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts.
The full Senate will now decide whether to bring up her nomination. That vote requires a simple majority.
The Rollins debate was initiated by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who criticized her policy, as Suffolk County District Attorney, not to prosecute some low-level crimes. He said it was up to the senators to ensure that U.S. attorney nominees will uphold federal laws.
"If Rachael Rollins wants to advocate for criminals to be released instead of the law to be enforced, there's a place for her in our government. It's called the public defenders office," Cotton said. "But with Rollins as a prosecutor in name only, the criminals have two advocates in the courtroom — the prosecution and the defense — while the victims of crime would have none."
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas went through the list of crimes that Rollins' office has said it may not prosecute, saying that her practices would endanger people and embolden people to commit crimes.
"You know it used to be that you had to pay off a prosecutor, have a corrupt prosecutor on the payroll to get out of jail," Cruz said. "Now you've got someone just openly saying, 'Drug dealers, come to Massachusetts because we don't prosecute.' "
Cotton also accused Rollins of having a temperament and judgement problem, bringing up a road rage incident last year where Rollins was accused of threatening a motorist and later a television camera crew who came to her home to ask about the incident. State Attorney General Maura Healey and the State Ethics Commission investigated the incident and cleared Rollins of any wrongdoing.
"It is a truly bizarre case," Cotton said. "It's just another example of how far outside the mainstream this nominee is. Her personal judgement is in question but there is no question that her professional judgement is terrible."
But Rollins defenders were just as fierce. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey accused the committee of mistreating Rollins, someone whom he said had dedicated her "entire career to making communities safer." Booker pointed to the dozens of letters of support for Rollins, including letters from republicans and law enforcement officials.
"When you have local republican leaders, local law enforcement, local prosecutors all testifying to this committee of this person — it does not hold up that this person is the hyperbolic statements 'radically pro criminal,' 'seeking to ignite a revolution,' 'pro criminal activist,' 'seeking to destroy the criminal justice system.' That just doesn't hold water," Booker said. "That sounds like rhetoric that doesn't meet reality."
The committee chair, Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, supported Rollins nomination, pointing out that lawmakers themselves are grappling with issues of prosecutorial and judicial discretion. Durbin urged the committee not to break the committee's precedent of largely approving U.S. attorney nominations.
"We have an opportunity to uphold the norms of tradition of this committee by supporting Ms. Rollins," Durbin said. "I hope my colleagues will rethink an approach that departs from a 30-year precedent and fails to recognize the support Ms. Rollins has and her unquestionable qualifications for the job."
Speaking at a Boston Chamber of Commerce event Thursday, Rollins said she is humbled by the nomination as well as the support from the law enforcement community. She described the Judiciary Committee's "spirited discussion" was "uplifting," and she hopes that people look at the data and evidence about the policies she's implemented as DA. She says data show that her policies help steer people away from the criminal justice system and get help, freeing up resources to focus on more serious crimes.
"I knew this was not going to be easy, and that the work we're doing here in Boston is scary to some people to some who are deeply invested in the status quo because the system works well for them," Rollins said. "So although it is a tie, it is not a loss."
Rollins office released a statement saying that she "looks forward to the confirmation process going to the full Senate" and that "she is focused on keeping the residents of Suffolk County safe and working closely with her local law enforcement partners to ensure Boston remains one of the very few major cities in the United States where violent crime is down."
It is now up to Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer to call for a vote to discharge her nomination from the committee and then vote on Rollins confirmation.