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Rachael Rollins will be U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, the first Black woman to hold the office05:35
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Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins speaks during the celebration to raise the Juneteenth flag in front of City Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins speaks during the celebration to raise the Juneteenth flag in front of City Hall. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The U.S. Senate couldn't have been more divided on the nomination of Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins for the job of top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts. But with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie, senators confirmed Rollins to become the state's next U.S. attorney, the first Black woman to hold that post.

The vote came Wednesday despite vocal opposition from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who urged his colleagues to deny Rollins' nomination because of progressive policies she implemented as a district attorney. One of the hallmarks of her tenure in the role was not prosecuting some low-level crimes, in order to involve less people in the criminal justice system and divert resources to focus on serious crimes.

"This soft on crime advocacy should have earned the nominee a pink slip. Instead President Biden is giving her a promotion. I would urge all senators to vote no," McConnell said. "Law abiding Americans don't want prosecutors who refuse to prosecute. They don't want city jails equipped with revolving doors and they need leaders who will defend the rule of law."

McConnell spoke before the first of two Senate votes Wednesday on Rollins' nomination. Both votes were along party lines and required the vice president to vote to break the tie.

It was the first time the U.S. Senate took a roll call vote on a U.S. attorney nomination since 1975.

Rollins says she is proud of the work she has done in Suffolk County and looks forward to doing similar work on the federal level.

"I’m deeply honored and humbled by the opportunity to serve my community, my Commonwealth and my country as the next United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts,” Rollins said, in an emailed statement. “Every policy and initiative that I have put in place as Suffolk County District Attorney has been designed to improve the safety and wellbeing of the communities I serve, to improve the public’s trust in law enforcement and our courts and to improve the fairness and equity of the criminal legal system. I look forward to bringing these data-driven, evidenced-based approaches and a heightened emphasis on culturally competent, trauma-informed victim services to the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.”

President Biden nominated Rollins in July along with seven others for U.S. attorney roles. The other seven were easily approved, but Republicans, led by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, described Rollins as a "radical" who "wanted to destroy the criminal justice system from within."

Before Wednesday's confirmation vote, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also urged his colleagues to stop her nomination. Cruz said that supporting Rollins is equivalent to wanting to abolish the police.

"Every one of you is deciding this vote," Cruz said, lodging his criticism at Democrats. "If you single handedly decide that this lawless so-called prosecutor should be confirmed, you can never again claim that you oppose abolishing the police."

But Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, both Democrats, strongly supported Rollins and pointed to letters sent on her behalf from a bipartisan group of officials including former republican Gov. William Weld and several law enforcement leaders and agencies.

Warren said Rollins policies have proven to be effective because, while crime is rising in other parts of the country, the rate of serious crimes in Boston has declined.

"Rachael is imminently qualified," Warren said. "The idea that the Republicans would try to turn her into some kind of a political cause just reminds everyone, not of any faults of Rachael or of our system in Massachusetts, but how poisonous Washington D.C. has become."

Markey decried the Republican senators who pushed the confirmation of Rollins to go to a vote.

"What the Republican senators did to uniformly oppose Rachael Rollins is to deny the reality of how effective she's been in Suffolk County," Markey said to WBUR on Wednesday night. "There has not been a vote on a U.S. attorney on the floor of the U.S. Senate since 1975 and the Republican senators decided that they would bring a Black woman — a successful prosecutor from Massachusetts — to be the first vote in all that time.

"It's a sad commentary on the Republican Senate right now that every one of them voted no on her despite her tremendous level of success."

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The nomination means that Rollins will lead a staff of 300 people in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorneys Office, which prosecutes, on average, 400 criminal cases each year.

Rollins was elected district attorney of Suffolk County in 2018. She was the first Black woman to lead that office. She campaigned as a criminal justice reformer who promised not to prosecute some crimes such as trespassing, shoplifting and resisting arrest. Rollins said such crimes are often because of underlying issues such as mental health or substance use and should be treated with diversion rather than clogging up the court system. Without so many cases, Rollins said the DA's office would then be able to focus resources on more serious crimes.

Before she became district attorney, Rollins worked as chief legal counsel for the Mass Port Authority and general counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA. She also formerly worked for the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's Office as an assistant U.S. attorney.

Once Biden signs off on the confirmation, Rollins will be sworn in as U.S. attorney, which is expected to happen in the next week.

Gov. Charlie Baker will name someone to serve as Suffolk County District Attorney through the next election in 2022.

In a statement from his office, the governor congratulated Rollins and said he "looks forward to continuing to work with her."

Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, wrote in a statement that the ACLU is looking forward to working with Rollins.

“From moving to dismiss thousands of cases tainted by Massachusetts’ drug lab scandals to declining to prosecute several low-level offenses, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins has prioritized racial justice and fairness in our legal system," she wrote.

Former Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, now a partner at the firm Anderson & Kreiger, said being a federal prosecutor is very different from being a state prosecutor. Ortiz said Rollins will have to become part of large federal bureaucracy.

"You're not completely in charge when you're the U.S. Attorney, you actually have a boss," she said. "You don't answer to the people who elected you, you answer to the Attorney General of the United States, so she'll have some oversight that she's probably not typically used to."

But Ortiz said it's expected that the White House will support Rollins' efforts toward reforming the criminal legal system.

"It's clear that under Merrick Garland and his executive leadership, they're very focused on civil rights enforcement, on police conduct and reform, police reforms and having oversight," Ortiz said. "There was no oversight during the last administration."

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu tweeted congratulations for Rollins:

In a tweet, Sen. Markey also shared his congratulations and wrote, "She will bring a renewed energy and innovative vision to this office."

Rollins had suggested that Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Dan Mulhern serve as interim DA once she is sworn in, but Mulhern is leaving the DA's office after the transition.

This article was originally published on December 08, 2021.

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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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