Brilliant. Innovative. Groundbreaking.
Those words are often used to describe Rachael Rollins, the Suffolk County district attorney who was just nominated as President Biden’s choice for US attorney in Massachusetts.
Yet despite such accolades, Rollins is also, politically speaking, a little risky — not because she won’t be confirmed, but because she probably will. Then Biden will have to live with her approach to life and justice.
Rollins was the first Black woman to win the Suffolk DA’s job and would be the first Black woman to become the region’s top federal prosecutor. As DA, she oversees a progressive criminal justice agenda, pivoting away from punishment toward fighting the root causes of crime, such as poverty and substance use disorder. That takes courage and conviction. To keep the focus on violent crime, she declines to prosecute some low-level crimes, and a recent independent study showed positive results. She also moved to overturn thousands of drug convictions that were based on tainted lab tests. She’s a fearless advocate for police reform, which pits her against the union representing Boston police. When an original prosecution is questionable, she’s open to dismissing charges. She recently moved to overturn a firearm conviction for Sean Ellis, who spent more than 20 years in prison before his conviction for the killing of a police officer was overturned.
To put it mildly, Rollins is also outspoken. When she doesn’t like something, she says so, as she did during an encounter last January with a television news crew who approached her in front of her home, seeking comment on a story about her involvement in a traffic incident. She demanded to know how they knew her publicly listed address and warned that if she or her children were harmed, “You are on the record for that.” She also told them to “get out of here”— “here” being what a spokesman for Rollins said is a “dead-end private way,” adding, “You know what I’ll do? We’ll call the police and make an allegation and see how well that works out for you.”
About those comments, former Massachusetts US attorney Andrew Lelling, a Donald Trump appointee, told WBUR: “When you wield that kind of power as US attorney, I think you have to control a little more what you say. If I threatened a reporter with arrest on video, I would have been fired.”
Rollins also made waves with her decision to call out former Boston mayor Marty Walsh — now Biden’s labor secretary — regarding Walsh’s ill-considered decision to hire Dennis White as Boston police commissioner. After domestic violence allegations came out against White, which Walsh insisted he knew nothing about, Rollins said, “Either [Walsh] knew about it and he’s lying, or he didn’t know about it and you’re a terrible manager.” That’s honest — but not judicious.
Biden chose her anyway, and now has a nominee who breaks the classic prosecutorial mold in ways that can be wonderful, but can also be politically worrisome.
Of course, the perception of what a US attorney should look and sound like is rooted in history: For over 200 years, a white man held the job in Massachusetts. The modern model was carved out by William F. Weld, who during the 1980s, famously used the office to make a name for himself by chasing public corruption, with Mayor Kevin White of Boston a key target, and eventually won election as governor. In 2009, when Carmen Ortiz was nominated to the post by President Barack Obama, she became the first woman — and first Hispanic — to serve in the post. Unlike Weld, however, her pursuit of public corruption was far from celebrated. Instead, it was viewed as prosecutorial over-reach.
Gender and race undoubtedly factor into reactions to Ortiz and Rollins too. Yet Rollins also makes it harder to embrace her reform agenda because of an incident like the one involving the TV news crew. When you list trespass as a crime you won’t prosecute, as she did when she ran for DA, you shouldn’t tell someone to “get out of here” or threaten to arrest them.
Prosecutors are human, and anyone can have a bad day. It’s up to Rollins to make sure her story is all about brilliance when it comes to law and policy — and not about what she says to people doing their jobs on a street outside her home.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described the street where Rachael Rollins lives.