Rachael Rollins, who has pushed for progressive criminal justice reforms as the first woman of color to serve as a district attorney in Massachusetts, is being nominated by President Joe Biden to become the state’s top federal prosecutor.
Rollins, who has led the Suffolk County district attorney's office since 2019, would become the first Black woman to serve as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts if she's confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
After the White House confirmed the long-speculated nomination Monday, her office said Rollins was "incredibly humbled by the great honor," but still focused on keeping Suffolk County residents safe as the district attorney.
Rollins in 2018 defeated the district attorney candidate backed by the longtime incumbent and police groups in the Democratic primary on a promise to decline prosecution for certain low-level crimes. She argued people shouldn’t be jailed for crimes that result from mental health or addiction problems and said she wanted to focus her attention on serious crimes, like homicides.
As the top prosecutor for Boston and surrounding communities, Rollins has been outspoken about the need for police reform in the wake of high-profile killings of people of color by law enforcement across the U.S. In an interview with The Associated Press in April, she said the country must do away with the misconception that questioning the police or suggesting ways they can improve means “you don’t back the blue.”
“The police have an incredibly hard job, and believe me, I know there are violent people that harm community and police but that’s not all of us. So we have to acknowledge that it’s not working and we have to sit together to come up with solutions, but it’s urgent,” Rollins said at the time. “I’m afraid, I’m exhausted and I’m the chief law enforcement officer so imagine what other people feel like,” she said.
Rollins has also sparred with Boston’s largest police union, which accused her last summer of inciting violence against law enforcement after she tweeted: “We are being murdered at will by the police ... No more words. Demand action.” Rollins rebuffed the union’s criticism, saying on Twitter, “White fragility is real people.”
In one high-profile Boston case, she moved to overturn the remaining firearm conviction for a man who spent more than 20 years in prison for the killing of a police officer before his murder conviction was overturned. Rollins’ said the case of Sean Ellis, whose fight to prove his innocence was documented in the Netflix series “Trial 4,” was “tainted by significant and egregious police corruption and prosecutorial misconduct.”
As district attorney, Rollins has also vowed to push to end mandatory life-without-parole sentences for those who committed killings between the ages of 18 and 20. Such punishments are already outlawed for juveniles. She said in an interview with the AP last month that she would ask the state’s highest court to rule that such defendants a special sentencing hearing to consider their youth before punishments can be handed down.
“We are going to move now to make sure that overwhelmingly Black and brown men aren’t disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system,” Rollins told the AP. “We’re going to do what’s right and at least have them have more hope and opportunity … to believe that they can change after 10, 15, 20 or so years.”
Rollins, who used to work as an assistant U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, would be just the second woman to head the state’s federal prosecutors’ office. Carmen Ortiz became the first woman and the first Hispanic to serve as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts in 2009.
On Monday, U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren hailed the nomination.
“District Attorney Rollins is a great choice for U.S. Attorney, and we were proud to recommend her to the Biden administration,” they said in a statement. Rollins "is 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. She has prosecutorial experience, and is dedicated and committed to advancing equal justice for all, and we are certain that she will be a tremendous U.S. Attorney."
Gov. Charlie Baker, who would appoint Rollins' replacement until the next election, said Monday he'd congratulated Rollins and, in keeping with precedent, asked her for input on who she'd like to see succeed her.
He said he'd be looking for "experience, intelligence and in some degree support from the community" in whoever he picks to step into the Suffolk County district attorney's office.
Biden is also nominating seven other new leaders for U.S. attorney positions across the country, including in the office overseeing the prosecutions of hundreds of defendants charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
The nominees announced by the White House on Monday come as the Justice Department is continuing to round out its leadership team under Attorney General Merrick Garland, who traveled to Chicago last week to announce an initiative to crack down on gun trafficking corridors. The Justice Department’s 93 U.S. attorneys, who are responsible for federal criminal prosecutions in their respective districts, are likely to be central to efforts to combat violent crime.
The nominees would run offices in the District of Columbia, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Washington state. Most would be historic firsts, including the first Black or female attorneys to lead their districts, the Biden administration said.
Rollins and the other nominees were “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,” according to the White House.
The lawyers represent the first batch of U.S. attorney nominees advanced by the Biden White House, which is still working to fill key Justice Department posts six months into the administration. The White House last week announced the nomination of a lawyer to run its antitrust division but withdrew its nominee for the civil division head. No nominee has been announced for the key solicitor general role.
In addition to Rollins, the nominees announced Monday include Matthew Graves, a former fraud and public corruption prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in the District of Columbia who is being tapped to run that office at a time when it is consumed by hundreds of cases arising from the Capitol riot.
The Trump administration appointee who held the job during the riot, Michael Sherwin, later left the Justice Department. The position has been held on an acting basis by Channing Phillips, who served in the same role during the Obama administration.
Erek Barron, a former federal prosecutor and policy advisor to Biden and a current state lawmaker, would be the first Black U.S. attorney in the District of Maryland, the White House said.
Other nominees include Zachary Myers, who specializes in national security and cyber matters as a federal prosecutor in Maryland and who the White House says would be the first Black U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Indiana; and Clifford Johnson, who would be the first Black lawyer to lead the Northern District of Indiana after spending nearly 35 years in that office.
Justice Department environmental lawyer Vanessa Waldref would be the first woman to run the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Washington. And Nicholas Brown, who has been a federal prosecutor and general counsel to the governor, would be the first Black lawyer to run the Western District of Washington, which encompasses Seattle.
The Justice Department disclosed in February that it was seeking the resignation of most U.S. attorneys appointed during President Donald Trump’s administration, though it did leave in place David Weiss, the top federal prosecutor in Delaware, where law enforcement officials have been conducting a criminal tax investigation involving Biden’s son, Hunter.
U.S. attorneys serve at the president’s pleasure and are routinely nominated with a recommendation from a home-state senator. For instance, Trini Ross, a former federal prosecutor who is being nominated as U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York in Buffalo, was recommended for the job by the state’s senior senator, Charles Schumer.