Senate approves Rhode Island Public Defender Montecalvo for federal appeals court

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Rhode Island Public Defender Lara E. Montecalvo won U.S. Senate approval Wednesday for her nomination to the federal appeals court.

The full Senate voted 52 to 47, largely along party lines, in support of President Joe Biden’s nomination of Montecalvo to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The vote came a day after the U.S. Senate voted to limit debate on the nomination

Montecalvo will take the seat vacated by Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, the first Black woman to serve on the appeals court, assumption of senior status. The courts hears federal appellate cases from Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island.

U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, who recommended Montecalvo to Biden, hailed the confirmation Wednesday.

"As the state’s public defender, Lara Montecalvo served the people of Rhode Island well. I am confident she will continue to do so on the federal bench. She has dedicated her legal career to public service and we are fortunate to have a judge with her expertise and background on one of our nation’s most important courts,” Reed said in a statement.

“Congratulations to soon-to-be Judge Montecalvo on earning bipartisan approval from the Senate. She is extremely well-respected in Rhode Island’s legal and law enforcement communities. I know she will be a strong voice for justice and fairness on the First Circuit,” Whitehouse, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said.

Montecalvo enjoyed widespread support from state judges, Rhode Island law enforcement leaders, and her once legal adversaries in the attorney general’s office throughout her confirmation process.

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Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was among the lawmakers who voted in support of Montecalvo Wednesday.

According to Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, Graham has voted for more Biden picks than any other Republican senator due to his belief in deference to the president, unless the nominee is too liberal, making his vote critical in Senate Committee of the Judiciary for many nominees.

Montecalvo has led the Rhode Island Public Defender’s office since being appointed by then-Governor Gina Raimondo 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.

She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Swarthmore College and graduated magna cum laude in 2000 from Boston College Law School.

Montecalvo's confirmation won praise from interests groups for her experience as a public defender.

“Lara Montecalvo will be a tremendous addition to the First Circuit given her experience as a public defender and her pursuit of equal justice for all ... Despite the critical role they play in our judicial system, public defenders remain vastly underrepresented on the federal bench. To strengthen our judiciary, we need more judges like Montecalvo who possess this kind of important experience," Lena Zwarensteyn, senior director of the fair courts program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement.

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Biden has made a practice of nominating public defense lawyers to the bench, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

"President Biden has done more to bring professional diversity to the bench than any president in modern history. By breaking the record for most public defenders put on the critical courts of appeal, President Biden and Leader [Chuck] Schumer are showing that the era when prosecutors and corporate lawyers were deemed uniquely worthy of federal judgeships is over. In the closing months of this Congress, we must fill as many vacancies as possible with professionally diverse Biden judges," said Demand Justice Chief Counsel Christopher Kang.

Montecalvo lives in Barrington with her husband, defense lawyer Craig V. Montecalvo, and their son, Matthew.

Deputy Public Defender Matthew B. Toro will serve as acting chief defender until Governor McKee names a permanent replacement.

Montecalvo is the second Rhode Island Public Defender to ascend to the federal bench. Her predecessor, Mary S. McElroy, is seated on the U.S. District Court.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the process of Montecalvo's approval by the Senate.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Lara Montecalvo appointed to 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals