Rollins shows her mettle
DA stares down judge -- and wins again
FOR YEARS, showdowns in the criminal justice system often followed a predictable storyline: A judge used his or her discretion to lean toward the side of compassion for a defendant and the district attorney’s office — sometimes with the loud backing of law enforcement officials — slammed the move and declared go-easy judges an impediment to the delivery of justice and efforts to hold offenders accountable for their actions.
Enter Rachael Rollins.
The Suffolk County district attorney, who just completed her first year in office, vowed to upend the usual ways of that world — and no one can say she hasn’t kept her word.
The most recent evidence came yesterday, when Supreme Judicial Court Justice David Lowy sided with Rollins in a case in which her office tangled with two district court judges in a role reversal that had the DA looking to dismiss a case while the two jurists insisted otherwise.
The misdemeanor conviction isn’t something anyone would want trailing through life, but it wouldn’t ordinarily have dire consequences. In Bilal’s case, however, because he is a Somali immigrant who holds a permanent resident status but is not a US citizen, the conviction meant he was subject to deportation and not having his green card renewed by immigration officials.
Rollins has emphasized that her office will consider not only the specific facts and circumstances of each case, but also any “collateral consequences” that could follow from the way a case is handled. She has said the DA’s office will look to deliver justice in a broader sense that weighs all the factors at play.
Because Bilal appeared to have turned his life around — he works 55 to 60 hours a week at a North End restaurant whose owner praised him in a letter to the court — and because the conviction could have led to him being sent back to a country he fled with his family when he was 2 days old, Rollins’s office sought to clear his record.
In November, Rollins’s general counsel, Donna Patalano, and Bilal’s defense attorney, Kelly Cusack, appeared before Judge Michael Coyne in Boston Municipal Court to jointly request a new trial in the case. He agreed, and Patalano promptly filed a motion to dismiss the case.
But several days later, a livid Coyne ordered the two lawyers back to court after learning the judge who heard the original case in 2011, Sally Kelly, had denied four earlier motions for a new trial. He vacated his order for a new trial, reinstated Bilal’s conviction, and turned the case back to Kelly, who again denied the motion for a new trial. Coyne said the lawyers had “misled” him by not disclosing Kelly’s earlier rulings, though they were part of the case file he had.
The DA’s office filed an emergency petition to a single justice of the SJC, and Lowy ruled yesterday that there was nothing improper in Coyne’s initial ruling and that the DA’s move to drop charges could not be reversed days later by a judge.
“When an individual has worked so hard to take accountability for their actions and turned their life around, I will not sit idly by when cruel and extreme collateral consequences impede their ability to move beyond their past,” Rollins said in a statement yesterday. “No one is their worst moment.”
Against the backdrop of a national climate in which President Trump has sought to drum up support for harsher immigration policies by spotlighting horrific crimes committed by immigrants, the DA’s office gave Bilal preferential treatment because of his immigrant status, and it’s not hiding from that.“We were doing this for one purpose only, because of the unjust collateral consequences of the federal immigration law,” Patalano told Lowy Tuesday in explaining why the office sought a new trial in the case.
Globe columnist Adrian Walker says Rollins did the right thing. For her part, the DA is showing no hesitation to use the full authority of her office to upend the status quo, a lesson judges in Suffolk County have now received twice.