When Daniel F. Conley announced he was stepping down as Suffolk district attorney three years ago, he gave Governor Charlie Baker a handful of recommended successors, he recalled Monday. Just two weeks later, Baker chose one from the list — Conley’s longtime chief trial counsel, John Pappas — to complete the three months left in his term.
With the Biden administration nominating Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins to be US attorney for Massachusetts, Baker may again have the chance to appoint the county’s top prosecutor. This time, however, his choice could serve more than a year in office before the 2022 election, a potentially considerable political advantage.
The Republican governor, who has clashed with Rollins on several occasions, is facing pressure from criminal justice reform advocates who are pushing for a candidate who will build on Rollins’s progressive legacy.
Rollins has touted her first assistant, Daniel Mulhern, as her successor, but the names of other experienced prosecutors have circulated in the political and legal community, including Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who crossed party lines to support Baker, Linda Champion, who lost to Rollins in the 2018 Democratic primary, and Rahsaan Hall, an activist in the Black community who works for the ACLU of Massachusetts. All three have worked as Suffolk prosecutors.
At a press conference Monday at the State House, Baker said he will be looking for someone with “experience, intelligence, and some degree of support from the community.”
Baker said he would “certainly” ask Rollins whom she recommends as a successor, as he has with other departing officials. But he was noncommittal about whether he would follow her recommendation if the US Senate confirms her nomination.
“The good news is the Senate’s in recess at least until after Labor Day, so we’ve got time,” he said.
But many people who support the philosophical changes Rollins has pushed, such as declining to prosecute a number of low-level, nonviolent crimes, said they hope Baker’s selection shares her approach.
“There are important changes happening in the criminal legal system, and more and more we are seeing prosecutors who understand that we cannot simply incarcerate our way to a safer society,” said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency. " I hope Governor Baker appoints an open-minded district attorney who understands that the business-as-usual approach to prosecution does not work. We want to have a positive and strong working relationship with whoever takes over this important job – and we hope that they continue many of the forward-looking campaigns that have helped our clients in Suffolk County.”
Daniel Medwed, a Northeastern University law professor, praised Rollins as a “true reformer” and urged Baker to accept her recommendation for her successor.
“The people of Suffolk County spoke loud and clear when they elected a progressive prosecutor, and it would be a shame if Charlie Baker didn’t continue to fulfill the wishes of the electorate,” he said.
But historically, governors have not necessarily accepted the advice of outgoing district attorneys. In 1992, Republican Governor William F. Weld drew criticism when he appointed Ralph C. Martin II as Suffolk district attorney to complete the last two years of Newman Flanagan’s term, the same day Martin switched his political affiliation from independent to Republican.
Martin, the first Black man to hold the job, was a former federal prosecutor with no political experience yet went on to serve as district attorney for 10 years. When he announced in 2002 that he would not finish his term, Conley took the initiative, writing the legal counsel for Republican Governor Jane Swift that he had announced his candidacy for the position and wanted to be appointed.
He included a copy of his resume, detailing his work as a prosecutor, along with recommendations from judges, lawyers, and community leaders. He said he later learned that many candidates had also reached out to the governor’s office, vying for the job.
“There were no politics involved,” said Conley, a Democrat, adding that Swift never asked him to endorse her during her own reelection bid. Conley urged Baker to follow suit.
“Although I expect others to urge him to do so, I would encourage the governor not to apply any sort of political litmus test to this appointment because DA should be the least political position in government,” Conley said. “I would recommend instead that the governor choose a lawyer of unquestioned character and integrity, one with humility, an outstanding work ethic, and excellent good judgment.”
Conley also encouraged Baker to “strongly consider the many outstanding prosecutors, both past and present, who have served the office as the next Suffolk district attorney.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said Rollins “has demonstrated what a difference a DA makes; from moving to dismiss thousands of cases tainted by Massachusetts’ drug lab scandals to declining to prosecute several low-level offenses, she has prioritized racial justice and fairness in our legal system.”
Baker must appoint a successor “who will continue the work toward a legal system that is focused on transformation and healing — not convictions and incarceration,” she added.
Former US attorney Michael J. Sullivan, who years ago hired Rollins as a federal prosecutor, said he expected her nomination process to go smoothly.
“There’s a great deal of, I think, deference that should be given to the home state’s recommendation and the president’s nomination,” he said.
Sullivan said he is confident that Baker will be interested in Rollins’s thoughts about her successor but will ultimately rely on his own judgment.
“At the end of the day, I think the governor will pick someone he thinks will best serve Suffolk County,” he said.
Andrea Estes and Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this report.