WASHINGTON, D.C. – Backed by members of the state judiciary, Rhode Island law enforcement leaders, and her once legal adversaries in the attorney general’s office, the state’s chief public defender on Wednesday addressed the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in her bid to become a federal appeals court judge.
The Judiciary Committee on Wednesday considered President Biden’s nomination of state Public Defender Lara E. Montecalvo to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If confirmed by the Senate, Montecalvo would replace U.S. Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, who is assuming senior status after ranking as the appellate court’s first Black female judge.
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who recommended Montecalvo with Sen. Jack Reed, presented the committee with letters of support from the pillars of the state judiciary and the legal and law enforcement communities, crediting her for her integrity and devotion to her clients and the rule of law.
“[Public defenders] protect those too easily cast aside by society. That is why I recommended Miss Montecalvo to President Biden for this post: Her record as an advocate, her dedication to her clients and her good stewardship of the public defender’s office prove that she will be an exemplary 1st Circuit judge,” Whitehouse said.
Superior Court judges and magistrates, past and present, praised Montecalvo for her unquestionable character, intelligence and unflappable demeanor.
“Lara has continuously impressed us with her dedication and commitment, and we can say without hesitation that she enjoys an impeccable reputation with the bench and bar alike,” they wrote. “What sets Lara apart, however, is that she has been able to accomplish all of this without ever losing sight of the humanity attendant to our work in the justice system.”
Likewise, the state Supreme Court bench, including two recently retired justices, endorsed the nomination.
Current and retired law enforcement leaders also weighed in on Montecalvo’s behalf.
“Lara Montecalvo is known to us, and colleagues throughout Rhode Island’s criminal justice community, as someone who respects the rule of law and the important role law enforcement plays in promoting public safety,” more than a dozen police leaders said.
Montecalvo spoke of her office’s work with the state Attorney General’s office, the Department of Corrections and the judiciary early in the COVID pandemic to release 52 people whose sentences were about to end in order to reduce the prison population.
“I’m proud to say I worked on that case,” said Montecalvo, who was joined by her husband, Craig, son, Matthew, and other family members.
The office then unsuccessfully asked the courts to further ease bail rules as an emergency measure to reduce the prison population as COVID cases spiked.
Montecalvo received pushback from U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, who questioned her about whether she would have supported the release on bail of a man who was later accused of an unprovoked killing on a New York subway. Blackburn asked if she backed eliminating cash bail.
“I don’t have a position on cash bail,” Montecalvo said.
Blackburn asked, too, if she supported voter ID laws.
“[Montecalvo] properly responded to Sen. Blackburn’s questions about whether she favored voter ID laws and abolishing cash bail by saying that she would follow precedent of SCOTUS and the First Circuit,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
“The questions involved issues on which [Montecalvo] worked as an advocate and which she might address as a judge and so she should not have taken a position on them as [Blackburn] requested.”
Montecalvo told the committee she admired Judge Thompson for her judicial temperament and ability to write decisions that could be understood by all, not just those with legal training.
“She is the epitome of a judge who respects everyone who comes before her,” Montecalvo said. She admired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell for championing an examination of equity issues in the Rhode Island judiciary.
Montecalvo, 48, of Barrington, has led the Rhode Island Public Defender’s office since 2020 after rising through the ranks and serving as chief of the appellate division. The state public defender’s office provides legal representation for Rhode Islanders who cannot afford to hire a lawyer in criminal, juvenile, and parental rights cases.
Montecalvo previously worked as a trial lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., for four years, focusing on civil tax matters in federal courts before joining the public defender’s office in 2004.
Tobias said he expected Montecalvo to easily win confirmation as she performed well and is well qualified and highly experienced, and has strong support. The Judiciary Committee is expected to discuss her nomination next month. If approved, it would move to the full Senate for review and a vote.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: U.S. Senate Judiciary considers RI Public Defender for appeals court