WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday narrowly confirmed Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins to be US attorney for Massachusetts, making the progressive prosecutor the first Black woman to become the state’s top federal law enforcement official.
After weeks of delay, the historic and unusually contentious nomination came with a final dose of drama. Vice President Kamala Harris had to trek to Capitol Hill twice Wednesday to break votes tied 50-50 along party lines — on a procedural motion and then on confirmation — in the face of united Republican opposition to a nominee they branded as a radical intent on dismantling the criminal justice system from the inside.
US attorney nominees normally are confirmed easily for their four-year terms by a routine unanimous consent motion. But Rollins’s nomination turned into the latest partisan battle in the evenly divided Senate over President Biden’s executive and judicial branch picks. Republican opposition to her forced the Senate to hold its first roll call vote to confirm a US attorney since 1975.
Rollins said after her confirmation that she was “deeply honored and humbled by the opportunity to serve my community, my Commonwealth, and my country” as the next US attorney. She also defended her record as a criminal justice reformer who was elected in 2018 on a bold platform that included not prosecuting some categories of low-level crimes.
“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,” Rollins said in a statement. She said she looked forward “to bringing these data-driven, evidenced-based approaches and a heightened emphasis on culturally competent, trauma-informed victim services” to her new job.
Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, who recommended Rollins be nominated for the job, said in a joint statement after the vote that she “has devoted her career to transforming the criminal justice system so that it actually reduces crime and provides equal justice for all.”
It is great news that the Senate has confirmed Rachael Rollins as the US Attorney for the District of MA. @DARollins is dedicated to transforming the criminal justice system so that it delivers equal justice. She will bring a renewed energy and innovative vision to this office. https://t.co/VXtb9WF1d4— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) December 8, 2021
I'm delighted the Senate has confirmed Rachael Rollins as the US Attorney for the District of MA. Rachael has devoted her career to transforming the criminal justice system so it reduces crime & provides equal justice. Looking forward to the results she'll bring to this role.— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) December 8, 2021
The Senate had previously confirmed 27 of Biden’s US attorney nominees by unanimous consent. And Democrats noted that they did not try to block US attorney nominations during Donald Trump’s administration, with all 85 of the former president’s picks confirmed by unanimous consent.
But Republicans decided to take a stand on Rollins. The fight was led by Senator Tom Cotton, a conservative from Arkansas and potential 2024 presidential candidate who has been highly critical of Democrats on crime.
Biden nominated Rollins in July as part of his first slate of US attorney picks, a diverse group of eight nominees that included two Black women and four Black men. The other seven were easily confirmed.
But Rollins, 50, a former assistant US attorney in Massachusetts, immediately drew objections from Cotton, who linked her to policies he said have contributed to a jump in violent crime nationwide. He joined with his Republican colleague, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, to blast Rollins at a September Judiciary Committee hearing that ended in an 11-11 deadlock along party lines on her confirmation, with outraged Democrats strongly defending her.
Rollins was elected district attorney as the first Black woman to hold the office in the state and launched ambitious reforms. Republicans seized on her policy not to prosecute 15 types of low-level, nonviolent crimes, including shoplifting, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, and resisting arrest.
On Wednesday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, urged a no vote on her nomination by pointing to rising homicide rates around the country and criticizing Rollins for not being a tougher prosecutor.
“This soft-on-crime advocacy should have earned the nominee a pink slip. Instead, President Biden is giving her a promotion,” McConnell said of Rollins. “Law-abiding Americans don’t want prosecutors who refuse to prosecute.”
But Republican arguments were undercut by letters of support for Rollins from dozens of Massachusetts district attorneys, law enforcement officials, and social justice advocates, as well as recent statistics showing Boston has defied national trends and seen a decline in shootings and homicides this year compared to 2020.
The committee tie created procedural hurdles for Rollins’s confirmation, necessitating a vote by the full Senate to take up her nomination. That measure narrowly passed 50-47 on Dec. 2 after Markey and Warren took to the Senate floor to praise her record and criticize Republicans for trying to stop her confirmation.
Republican opposition continued and forced Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to file a motion to cut off debate. That vote Wednesday ended 50-50, requiring Harris to break the tie — the eighth nomination so far in which she cast a tie-breaking vote of some sort.
Schumer has been highly critical of Republicans for erecting roadblocks to Biden nominees who are “qualified and uncontroversial.”
“The political right seems to relish in trying to score political points by connecting far too many of President Biden’s nominees — many of whom happen to be individuals of color — to hot-button partisan issues, whether or not they have any relevance,” he said last month.
As of Nov. 15, the Senate had confirmed just 179 of 419 nominees tracked by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, not including US attorneys, judges, and some other positions. That was fewer than under Trump and the prior two presidents at the same point in their administrations.
“It has been absolutely slower for Biden than for prior presidents, but it’s been slow for all modern presidents,” said Max Stier, the group’s president, who has called for a reduction in the number of Senate-confirmed positions to help solve the problem. “Individual senators can’t stop someone from going through, but they can extract a price [by being] the proverbial sand in the machine.”
It’s unclear when Rollins will take over as US attorney, but it is likely to be soon. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker will have to tap someone to fill the remainder of Rollins’s term as district attorney, which extends through 2022. Aides to Baker, a Republican, have not said whom he plans to appoint.
Baker administration officials interviewed several candidates in September, reportedly including Linda Champion, who ran against Rollins in 2018, and Kevin Hayden, a former prosecutor who now heads the state Sex Offender Registry Board. Others who have been mentioned as possible successors are Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty and Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
Globe staff writer Andrea Estes and correspondent Neya Thanikachalam contributed to this report.