Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins has emerged as a finalist for the job of United States attorney for the district of Massachusetts, a post overseeing more than 200 federal prosecutors, according to several people who have been briefed on the selection process.
Rollins is one of four lawyers chosen by a search committee appointed by US Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, the people said. The committee last week submitted the names for the state’s top federal law enforcement job to the senators, who interviewed candidates last week.
Two other finalists work in the US Attorney’s office. Jennifer Serafyn is the chief of the civil rights unit in Boston, where she works on civil matters. Deepika Bains Shukla heads the US Attorney’s office in Springfield and has been involved in key cases including the prosecution of a Springfield police officer accused of police brutality in the beating of two Latino boys.
Also under consideration is Josh Levy, a partner at Ropes & Gray, a Boston law firm, and a former assistant US attorney.
The committee received dozens of applications by the Dec. 28 deadline, but winnowed down the list through interviews. Three of the four are non-white candidates. Besides Rollins, who is Black, Serafyn is half Cuban — her mother came to the United States from Cuba — and Shukla is of Indian descent, according to someone who has worked with them.
The committee moved quickly in response to a request from the incoming Biden administration to submit top candidates for US attorney and judicial positions by Jan. 19, a day before his inauguration, explained Nancy Gertner, the former federal judge who led the search committee.
“We were acting quickly because the White House counsel wanted names right away,” Gertner said. “Democrats were criticized under Obama for moving so slowly. We worked through the holidays. We made our selections.”
She wouldn’t comment on individual candidates but said the panel’s choices were made before publicity surrounding an alleged road rage incident at South Bay Shopping Center involving Rollins. Attorney General Maura Healey is reviewing the Christmas Eve encounter in which a Dorchester woman accused Rollins of threatening her in the mall parking lot, activating her blue lights and siren, and then blowing through a red light to exit the mall.
Days later, when a Boston 25 news crew later showed up at Rollins’s house to ask her about the incident, she launched an expletive-laden tirade, threatening to file a police report against the producer.
“I swear to God — I’m dead serious. I will find your name. I will have you arrested, I swear to God. My children!” Rollins said on videotape.
Before the controversy, she had been described as the front-runner by people familiar with the selection process. Later in the week, some of those people insisted she did not have an edge over the other candidates.
Rollins would not comment on her interest in the US attorney’s job. Spokespeople for both Markey and Warren did not respond to requests for comment. The other finalists either could not be reached or declined to comment.
Incoming White House counsel Dana Remus asked senators to submit at least three finalists for US attorney “as soon as possible and not later than Jan. 19.” Remus also asked for at least three finalists for US marshal and US District Court judge.
Remus wrote in a Dec. 22 letter that the Biden administration is looking for “talented individuals who would bring to these critically important roles a wide range of life and professional experiences, including those based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, veteran status, and disability. "
Though the process is moving ahead quickly, there are several steps that need to be taken before a US attorney can take office. The Justice Department interviews the applicant, who must also undergo an FBI background check.
The president ultimately nominates the successful candidate, who must be confirmed by the Senate.
The nominee would succeed Andrew Lelling, who has served as US attorney since 2017 and has earned a reputation as someone willing to take on powerful interests, including State Police troopers who had for years padded their overtime, and parents who paid others to help their children get into colleges in the “Varsity Blues” college cheating scandal.
Lelling, who was appointed by President Trump, has told others he is considering a run for public office after his appointment ends.
Rollins was elected district attorney in 2018, beating four other candidates including a longtime prosecutor who had the backing of police as well as the outgoing district attorney.
She became the first Black woman to hold the job, coming to office with a reform agenda that included reduced prosecution for minor crimes and a willingness to vacate wrongful convictions as well as convictions based on the lab testing of disgraced former state chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak.
But she has also angered many Boston police officers who believe she has undermined their efforts by failing to prosecute or seek to hold dangerous criminals. Her penchant for blunt public comments sometimes antagonized fellow prosecutors as well as public defenders, whom she once criticized as mostly white privileged lawyers who don’t work hard for their clients.
The other finalists have diverse backgrounds.
Shukla has handled several major criminal cases in Western Massachusetts, including that of Gregg Bigda, a detective accused of assaulting teenagers while they were in handcuffs and attempting to frame them for drug crimes. His trial is pending.
She also prosecuted Christopher Roeder, an ex-Hadley police officer who was found guilty of using excessive force by breaking a prisoner’s nose in 2017.
Levy is co-chair of the global litigation and enforcement practice group at Ropes & Gray. He has worked as a prosecutor in the Middlesex District Attorney’s office and the US Attorney’s economic crimes unit.
While a federal prosecutor, he worked on a kickback case against a national medical care company, Fresenius, helping to win a record $486 million settlement.
More recently, he represented defendants in federal court including a lawyer, Gordon Caplan, who was sentenced to one month in prison for paying $75,000 to improve his daughter’s score on a college admissions test.
Serafyn has handled civil rights case for the US attorney, winning civil cases brought against restaurants that failed to provide adequate safeguards under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. She also won a settlement from the city of Somerville on behalf of a firefighter who was not rehired at a senior enough position when he returned from nearly a decade of overseas Marine deployments.
She was named head of the civil rights unit when it was formed by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz in 2016 “to protect the rights of the most vulnerable and underserved members of the community.”
If Rollins is named US attorney, Governor Charlie Baker would appoint a successor to fill the remainder of her term, which expires in 2022.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.