Rachael Rollins, who graduated from Northeastern’s law school more than 20 years ago, is up for a big promotion. Currently the Suffolk County District Attorney, a county that includes primarily Boston, she has been tapped by the White House to be U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, which would make her the chief federal law enforcement officer in the state.
Rollins is believed to be the first Northeastern law grad in modern times (the law school is more than 100 years old) to oversee federal criminal cases in Massachusetts. Emily Rice, a 1984 graduate, held the same post in New Hampshire after being nominated by President Obama.
Rollins won’t be the first with a Northeastern connection to join the Biden administration.
Law professors Shalanda Baker took a job in the Energy Department earlier this year; Rashida Richardson is at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Margaret Burnham was tapped for a new board that will make it easier to access the records of unsolved murders of Black people during the Civil Rights era.
There are 93 U.S. attorneys who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Rollins’s nomination was deadlocked after a Senate panel vote, and is currently awaiting a full vote by all 100 senators. Some are opposed to her progressive views about criminal justice.
News@Northeastern talked to Jackson about what kind of federal prosecutor he thinks Rollins will make if she’s confirmed. His comments were edited for brevity and clarity.
What’s the one thing that stood out about Rollins when you were her classmate?
Her fearlessness. I distinctly recall several instances during our first year in law school [of] her challenging the faculty on issues related to race and equity, and how those topics were being addressed in the classroom. And I just remember being struck by how―and I use this word many times―how fearless she was, and still is, in that she doesn’t hesitate to speak truth to power.
Was it common for law students to challenge faculty the way she did?
It is relatively common at Northeastern, at least now. I don’t recall it being as common back then in ‘94 or ‘95. The recent heightened awareness around race and equity in society has resulted in more students like Rachael in law schools who are committed to racial equity and dismantling systemic racism. But I do remember at the time it was not that common of an approach to challenge authority. It was the mid-1990s, during the Clinton administration, and the big issue at that time was welfare reform.
Did she change when she went into private practice?
Not at all. I recall her being comfortable at that point with speaking truth to power, which was a much more risky endeavor in a large law firm. You’re sticking your neck out further when you are challenging institutional issues in large law firms as compared to law school. It’s primarily about the billable hour at these big firms.
What other ways has she stayed true to herself?
After she secured the Democratic nomination for her current position as Suffolk County D.A., I remember her swinging by my office at the law school and we had a quick conversation. Let’s just say―consistent with my memory of her―she continued to talk like a sailor. I just remember coming away from that conversation thinking, “here she is, climbing the ladder of political power in the city of Boston, becoming one of these national profile reform prosecutors, and she hasn’t changed a bit.”
Some senators have accused Rollins of being soft on crime. What’s your take?
I disagree strenuously, because Rachael isn’t soft on anything. Rachael takes a job and she pursues it with every fiber in her being. She will be fair on crime, but she will be tough on crime. She will bring a very well needed perspective to our federal law enforcement in Massachusetts. She’s going to do it in a way that’s going to strive to achieve a balance between vigorous prosecution and equitable processes and equitable outcomes.
On that score, what kind of prosecutor do you think she’s going to make if she is confirmed?
She’s going to bring the same forthrightness and energy to the U.S. attorney’s office that she’s done in the Suffolk County district attorney’s office. She will be blunt. She will be candid. She’ll get the job done, but she will do it in a way that recognizes and addresses the systemic racism that remains part of our culture, part of our society, and part of our legal system, especially part of our criminal justice system. If that doesn’t endear her to certain senators, I am not surprised because she is actually about challenging the very institutions that they have devoted their lives to building.
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