WASHINGTON – A Republican senator has forced a delay of a key vote on Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s nomination to be the next US attorney for Massachusetts to give him time to lobby his colleagues to oppose her.
The move by Senator Tom Cotton, confirmed by an aide, to postpone a committee confirmation vote that was scheduled for Thursday comes after the Arkansas conservative publicly vowed in July to try to stop Rollins’s confirmation. He linked Rollins, a criminal justice reformer, to policies he said have contributed to an increase in violent crime nationwide.
“Massachusetts deserves a prosecutor who will enforce the law,” Cotton told the Globe this week.
With the strong backing of Massachusetts senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, President Biden nominated Rollins in July to be the state’s lead federal law enforcement official. If confirmed, Rollins would be the first Black woman to hold the job in the state’s history.
The Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled a confirmation vote for her and seven other US attorney nominees for Thursday, but the panel’s rules allow any member to delay consideration for one week or until the next committee meeting, whichever is later.
Cotton wants the delay so he has more time to urge senators from both parties to oppose Rollins’s nomination, said his aide, who declined to be named discussing internal strategy.
“She looks forward to the process continuing,” said Rollins’s spokesman Matt Brelis.
Democratic opposition to Rollins is unlikely, and Rollins and her allies have lined up support from law enforcement officials and former prosecutors from both parties to push back on the opposition. But a majority of committee Republicans have concerns about her, and Cotton intends to force a roll call vote on her nomination, according to his aide. (US attorney nominations usually are approved by a voice vote.)
If all Democrats support Rollins and all Republicans are opposed, the committee vote would be an 11-11 tie. Senate committees are evenly divided because the Senate is split 50-50, with Democrats holding the majority because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
In the case of a committee tie vote on Rollins, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would have to take the extra step of a full Senate vote to bring up the nomination, which requires only a simple majority. He has done that with some controversial Biden nominees, which Democrats have been able to confirm.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said this week he also had concerns about Rollins’s nomination but hadn’t decided if he would oppose it. Three other Republicans on the committee said they hadn’t looked at her record yet. Others did not respond to requests for comment.
John Walsh, Markey’s chief of staff, said he believes Rollins ultimately will be confirmed despite Cotton’s maneuverings. She would become only the second woman to hold the office.
The judiciary committee has not had a roll call vote on a US attorney nomination since 1993, said Walsh.
“The bottom line is Rachael is an excellent candidate. Her credentials will hold up to any measure the Senate holds out,” Walsh said.
Rollins, who was elected district attorney in 2018 as the first Black woman to hold the office in the state, came to the job with an ambitious reform agenda that included no longer prosecuting some minor crimes and a willingness to vacate convictions based on the lab testing of disgraced former state chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak.
She has occasionally clashed with the police union and drawn the ire of police officers, who complain that she has undermined their efforts by failing to prosecute some dangerous criminals.
Both Markey and Warren have championed Rollins’s nomination, collecting dozens of letters of support from her fellow district attorneys, former US attorneys, law enforcement officials and social justice advocates, which were delivered Wednesday to Senator Dick Durbin, the committee’s chairman, and Senator Chuck Grassley, its top Republican.
Among those who submitted letters were former Republican US attorneys Michael Sullivan, William Weld, and Wayne Budd, as well as Democrats Donald Stern and Carmen Ortiz.
Key law enforcement officials, including former Boston police commissioner William Gross and State Police Colonel Chris Mason, signed a letter acknowledging that “we do not always get along,” but that they support her appointment.
“In fact, we have disagreed strongly on issues. What we can say is that she respects us and the work we do to keep our communities safe,” they wrote. “She can admit when she is wrong. She can also be incredibly persuasive when she is right.” The letter was also signed by Acting Boston Police Commissioner Gregory Long and the chiefs of the Chelsea, Revere, Winthrop, and MBTA Transit police departments.
It is unusual for a nominee for US attorney to generate such controversy, according to some who have been through the process themselves.
Michael Sullivan, who served as US attorney from 2001 to 2009, said his own nomination was confirmed quickly in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“It’s very rare for the US Senators to take exception to the nominees for US attorney,” Sullivan said. He could only recall one or two nominees during George W. Bush’s administration who attracted opposition in the committee.
“Most often there is a great deal of deference to the president’s nominees for US attorney.” Sullivan said.
Cotton has voted against more of Biden’s cabinet nominees than all but three other Republican senators, according to one analysis, and vigorously opposed the nomination of Vanita Gupta, a civil rights lawyer and advocate for criminal justice reform who was eventually confirmed as associate attorney general with only Democratic votes.
If Rollins is named US attorney, Governor Charlie Baker would appoint a successor to fill the remainder of her term, which expires in 2022.
Earlier this month, Baker administration officials started interviewing potential candidates for Suffolk County district attorney. Several former assistant district attorneys are said to be interested in the job, including Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty and Linda Champion, who ran and lost against Rollins in 2018, according to people briefed on the process.
Baker officials wouldn’t say who has been interviewed or when the administration will make a decision.
Rollins had lobbied on behalf of her first assistant Dan Mulhern, but neither administration officials nor Rollins’s spokesman would say whether he had been interviewed.