U.S. Senate vote gives Biden record for most public defenders on appeals courts

U.S. Senate vote gives Biden record for most public defenders on appeals courts

Lara E. Montecalvo is sworn in during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 25, 2022. REUTERS/Leah Millis

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  • Senate confirms Lara Montecalvo to 1st Circuit
  • Senate in Biden era has confirmed six public defenders to circuit courts

(Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a Rhode Island public defender for a seat on a federal appeals court, handing President Joe Biden the record for placing the most nominees with that kind of experience onto the circuit courts.

Lara Montecalvo, who leads the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office, was cleared to join the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a 52-47 vote, a day after the Senate failed to confirm another public defender up for a appellate court seat.

Montecalvo’s confirmation comes as Senate Democrats speed up the process of voting on Biden’s judicial nominees ahead of the November midterm elections, when they risk losing their narrow control of the chamber to Republicans.

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The Senate now has confirmed 81 judicial candidates put forward by Biden, who has prioritized diversifying the federal bench. Of Biden’s 22 confirmed circuit court nominees, 15 have been women and 16 have been people of color, Democrats say.

Montecalvo is among 34 of Biden’s nominees who have served as public defenders, according to the progressive group Alliance for Justice – a record number, stemming from a push to appoint judges with under-represented professional backgrounds.

She is the sixth public defender nominated by Biden to an appeals court to win Senate approval, a number that surpasses former Democratic President Barack Obama’s record of five, the progressive group Demand Justice says.

Progressives and criminal justice reform advocates argue such appointments provide a greater defense-side perspective to a federal bench whose membership is skewed toward former prosecutors and ex-partners from major law firms.

Montecalvo has worked in the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office since 2004 and had led it since 2020. Her nomination received broad support from her state, as well as the entire Rhode Island Supreme Court.

She had during an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May faced Republican questions about her role in advocating early in the COVID-19 pandemic for the release of inmates to alleviate the risk of the virus spreading in prisons.

But her nomination ultimately garnered three Republican votes and proved less contentious than that of Arianna Freeman, another public defender Biden nominated to the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Senate failed on Tuesday to confirm Freeman with a vote of 47-50, with two Democrats absent and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer changing his vote to no as procedural move that will allow the body to reconsider her nomination later.

The Senate on Thursday is expected to vote to confirm another onetime public defender to a circuit court position, U.S. District Judge Sarah Merriam, who would join the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Read more:

U.S. appeals court nominee Freeman fails in rare setback

U.S. Senate panel advances public defender vets up for judgeships

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Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Nate Raymond

Thomson Reuters

Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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