New U.S. attorney shouldn’t be another white male

With many immensely qualified women and people of color ready to serve, President Joe Biden should appoint a leader of this office — serving a large and diverse metropolitan region — who better reflects the citizens the office serves.

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Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St.

The next U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois should reflect the area’s diversity, a former federal prosecutor writes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in the Loop.

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With the recent announcement that U. S. Attorney John Lausch will soon leave the office that he has led with integrity and honor, the legal community’s attention is shifting to the appointment of his successor. Sens. Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth will effectively choose our next leader for this important, unelected office.

As a long-time resident of the area served by the Northern District of Illinois, a proud former assistant U.S. attorney (and former unsuccessful applicant for the job), and a lawyer currently in private practice, I would like to share a perspective on what attributes the next U.S. attorney should possess — and yes, what he or she should look like.

The next U.S. attorney will lead an office of more than 150 talented lawyers and, with federal law enforcement partners, will focus the office’s significant, albeit limited, resources on mitigating our region’s most intractable problems, from gun violence to public corruption.

If you polled current and former assistants about the “right stuff” of the next leader, I doubt you would hear much disagreement. You would hear that the next U.S. attorney must be a highly accomplished lawyer with significant federal law enforcement experience; a fearlessly independent prosecutor; an advocate who exercises thoughtful judgment; a person who can be tough but fair; and a public servant with strong people and communication skills.

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I personally believe that candidates with partisan or political backgrounds should not be seriously considered, to maintain the integrity of the office’s public corruption work.

But there is something more that must be added to the list. In our criminal justice system, where lives and liberty are at stake, obtaining the buy-in of citizens is critical to achieving justice. Our jury system, and the accused’s entitlement to a jury drawn from a cross-section of the community, is a prime example.

As a junior prosecutor, I recall being summoned to a meeting in the U.S. attorney’s conference room in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse to discuss a potential indictment. In the hallway outside that conference room, there was a “wall of fame” — photos of distinguished former U.S. attorneys dating back well over a century. Waiting in the hallway, I had ample time to examine the portraits — all of white men.

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Later in my career, as I returned for subsequent meetings, that wall became — even for me, a white male — a growing contradiction in an increasingly diverse office of outstanding AUSAs.

‘Wall of fame’ needs to change

With the talented bench they have nominated to serve us, Durbin and Duckworth have made laudable progress in the diversification of our judges. And that brings me to my second wall of fame experience. One afternoon in the mid-1990s, I slid into the back row of the majestic Ceremonial Courtroom on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Courthouse to watch a naturalization ceremony. There, I observed the solemn ceremony where immigrants, the majority of whom were people of color, officially became U.S. citizens. During the ceremony, my eyes fixed upon the judicial wall of fame, with large photographs of the district’s judges. On that day, the judicial photos were mostly white men.

Last week, I stepped into that great courtroom again — ironically, just as another naturalization ceremony was about to begin. There was a distinct change on the walls, with more judges who were women and people of color. That change was particularly notable because the photos of the more recent appointees were in the direct sightline of immigrants taking their citizenship oath. Now, our newly minted citizens could see that the custodians of justice were not just white men.

It’s time for the U.S. Attorney’s Office wall of fame to change. With many immensely qualified women and people of color ready to serve, President Joe Biden should appoint a leader of this office — serving a large and diverse metropolitan region — who better reflects the citizens the office serves.

I have no favorite candidate, but I, and all residents of this district, very much have a vested interest in an excellent selection. After the next leader is chosen, I look forward to attending a meeting in the U.S. Attorney’s Office conference room and seeing a new picture on that wall, one that ushers in a new era of excellence and inclusivity.

Patrick Collins is a former federal prosecutor. During his time at the U.S. Attorney’s office, he served a year as the acting chief of the public corruption section.

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