Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins was nominated by President Biden yesterday to be the next United States attorney in Massachusetts, in a history-making move that could mark a dramatic shift away from immigration and drug prosecutions to a sometimes fiery brand of reform that aims to confront the root causes of poverty and crime.
With strong backing from both Massachusetts US senators, Rollins would be the first Black woman to hold the job in the state’s history, overseeing an office of more than 200 federal prosecutors.
Rollins’s nomination still needs confirmation by the Senate, where the Democrats have an edge so thin that a single defection could spell defeat. But supporters of Biden’s choice said that Rollins’s historic nomination puts a proven reformer in charge of shaping federal law enforcement in Massachusetts through 2024.
“With Rachael as a US attorney, we will have a champion for reform at the federal level,” said Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington.
“I would like her to focus on the rising number of hate and bias incidents,” she added. “People are ringing the alarms. They are afraid. Rachael is very much a voice of the people. She is able to recognize the risks that are posed by white supremacy.”
Rollins herself didn’t comment, but her spokesman, Matthew Brelis, said that she “is incredibly humbled by the great honor of being nominated’' to be US attorney.
Rollins became the first Black woman elected as district attorney in Massachusetts in 2018 and has promoted progressive reforms in the role, including declining to prosecute a slate of low-level, nonviolent crimes that she argued has resulted in over-incarceration, especially for people of color.
In recent weeks, she’s moved to overturn tens of thousands of drug convictions that were based on testing conducted at a now-closed state laboratory that has been dogged by scandal. Rollins also has spoken of the need for police reform following police shootings of people of color that sparked protests around the country.
In a joint statement, US Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, who recommended Rollins over several other candidates, praised her selection and promised to push for a speedy confirmation.
“District Attorney Rollins is a great choice for U.S. Attorney, and we were proud to recommend her to the Biden administration,” they said, calling Rollins “a national leader on transforming the criminal justice system and shifting away from an approach based on punishment and penalization to one that combats the root causes of injustice, whether it be poverty, substance use, or racial disparity.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet said when it would consider Rollins nomination, but it probably won’t take place until at least September.
The nomination may well give pause among conservatives in criminal justice circles and possibly in the Senate.
Zach Smith, a legal fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Rollins’s nomination will draw scrutiny from senators, calling her a “rogue prosecutor.”
“If Joe Biden’s serious about combating violent crime, I think this is the wrong move at the wrong time,” Smith said.
The White House announced Rollins’s pick along with seven other US attorney nominations, saying the group was “chosen for their devotion to enforcing the law, their professionalism, their experience and credentials in this field, their dedication to pursuing equal justice for all, and their commitment to the independence of the Department of Justice.”
Biden has made nominating women and people of color a priority in his picks for federal judges and continued that emphasis with his first set of nominees for US attorney. Three of the nominees are women, including two Black women. Four of the five male nominees are Black men.
Rollins’s district attorney term stretches until 2022, and Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, will be responsible for tapping someone to fill her slot until then. Baker has criticized Rollins’s criminal justice reforms in the past, and some advocates have expressed concerns that Baker will select someone who isn’t as dedicated to her progressive law enforcement vision.
Baker said he had reached out to Rollins Monday morning to congratulate her. He didn’t say whom he might choose to succeed her but when asked what traits he would look for he listed “experience, intelligence, and some degree of support from the community.”
Rollins already has requested that Baker pick her first assistant, Daniel Mulhern, to succeed her as acting district attorney.
Baker, speaking at a State House press conference, said he would “certainly” ask Rollins who she recommends as a successor, as he has asked other departing officials in the past.
As US attorney, Rollins will be able to put her stamp on federal law enforcement priorities in the state. Her predecessor in the role, Andrew Lelling, focused on immigration and drug crimes but also prosecuted some high-profile white-collar crimes, including the “Varsity Blues” investigation of parents who bought admission into pricey colleges for their children.
“It’s a position where she can have a major positive influence on reform, policing, reforming prosecutions here in the Commonwealth but also at the federal level,” Harrington told the Globe in May.
Rollins, known for making unfiltered, off-the-cuff comments, sparked blowback last year after calling public defenders too privileged compared to their clients. She recently waded into a controversy surrounding Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh’s handling of allegations of domestic violence against his pick for police commissioner in his final days as Boston mayor. “I think our former mayor left a very big mess for our acting mayor,” she said of Walsh in May.
Attorney General Maura Healey and the state ethics commission cleared Rollins of any wrongdoing stemming from an incident she faced in December when a Dorchester woman said she threatened her in the South Bay Shopping Center parking lot and activated her blue lights and siren. 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.
While prosecutors, judges, and some in law enforcement criticized Rollins’s decision not to prosecute low-level crimes as district attorney, a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests the policy has been a success: Far fewer people whose misdemeanor offenses were dropped before arraignment are reoffending compared to those who had their cases fully charged.
Some of Rollins’s fellow DAs say they also have not prosecuted low-level offenses, though it’s not as well known.
“Rachael’s appointment highlights not only the good work that’s she’s doing, but the good work we’ve been all doing for a number of years,” said Norfolk DA Michael Morrissey. “She brought attention to some serious issues.”
The US attorney’s office, according to people who work there, is a much more controlled environment than the DA’s office. The district attorney answers only to voters, while federal prosecutors are part of the Department of Justice, reporting to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Rollins, who received her undergraduate degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and her law degree at Northeastern, has some experience in the federal system, serving as an assistant US attorney early in her career. She previously served as chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Port Authority and general counsel to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey congratulated Rollins on her nomination.
“Rachael is an amazing woman; she’s an amazing public servant,” she said. “And I’m blessed to call her a sister in service in this work, and I have nothing to offer her but my deep, deep gratitude for the work that she has done.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, praised Rollins for moving to dismiss cases tainted by the drug lab scandal and for making “racial justice and fairness in our legal system” a priority.
Even police, a group with whom Rollins has clashed, issued largely positive statements in response to news of her nomination.
Colonel Christopher Mason, head of the Massachusetts State Police, called Rollins “a tough and passionate advocate for the people of Suffolk County.”
Acting Boston police commissioner Gregory Long called her nomination “prestigious and historic.”
Emma Platoff and Danny McDonald of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.