The Revolving Door Project, a Prospects partner, scrutinizes the executive branch and presidential power. Follow them at therevolvingdoorproject.org.
This week, NOLA.com reported that Keva Landrum has secured a nomination to be US attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, after two years of trying. If this is true, Landrum’s nomination represents a vicious break with President Biden’s campaign promises regarding criminal legal reform and of his obligation to protect the public interest.
Landrum struggled, and so far failed, to secure the nomination because he would be a uniquely terrible nominees for a uniquely important position. How did we get here?
Biden’s (Broken) Criminal Legal Promises
When asked about the campaign trail in 2019 if he would commit to “cutting incarceration by 50 percent,” Joe Biden responded enthusiastically: “More than that. We can do it more than that.” In 2020, he went on to promise that he would “end private prisons, cash bail, mandatory-minimum sentencing and the death penalty.”
But President Biden hasn’t delivered. From betraying the people of the District of Columbia in order to uplift right-wing fearmongering, to his constant repetition of centrist and conservative “fund the police” messages, to his oversight of the first expansion of the federal prison population in a decade, Biden’s record has consisted of betrayal after betrayal of the very promises that got him elected.
Keva Landrum’s apparent nomination for US attorney is but another continuation of this disturbing trend.
Landrum’s Lamentable Record
While she was a judge in New Orleans, Landrum participated with other judges in creating what criminal legal reform activist Alec Karakatsanis a as a “modern day debtors’ prison.” Landrum and other judges created a system in which their offices and staff were paid for from the court’s collections activities. Worse, they themselves were in charge of setting the amount of those fees and fines, and determining the offenders’ capacity to pay them, and they lent themselves the authority to jail citizens who were incapable of paying. Ultimately, Landrum and other judges arbitrarily jailed thousands in New Orleans for failing to pay the excessive fines that funded their own budgets.
A federal court determined that this fraught scheme was so egregious that each of the judges involved had violated citizens’ 14th Amendment rights. Landrum, as chief judge of the court, appealed to the determination and defended the scheme several times.
That’s not all. In 2016, the United States Supreme Court determined that Landrum violated the Constitution again by allow nearly a dozen Black people to be struck from jury service in her courtroom in what was clearly illegal racial prejudice. Further, as a prosecutor, Landrum made national news for charging people with minor marijuana offenses with felony if they had prior convictions. Landrum’s prosecutorial career also included overseeing an office swarming with prosecutorial misconductwhich saw prosecutors hide exculpatory evidence from Robert Jones’s defense in 2007. As a judge in 2014, Landrum rejected Jones’s appeal, despite the fact that it was his own office that mishandled the case.
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Landrum’s record as a judge and a prosecutor displays gross disregard for people’s fundamental rights, and a cruel impulse toward channeling the state and local resources toward overzealous, punitive prosecution of the public for the smallest of offenses.
With such a long history of abusing her prosecutorial authorities and abusing the public from her positions of public power, Landrum has no place being empowered with the full prosecutorial authority of the federal government.
Why Does It Matter?
US attorneys, presidential appointees who are subject to Senate approval, function as the top federal attorneys in their appointed districts, lead federal prosecutors in any given region, and represent the federal government in both civil and criminal cases.
As we have noted many times beforeUS attorneys also have huge amounts of autonomy in the activities, direction, and priorities of their offices, empowering them with the unique ability to “implement ambitious reforms to the federal legal landscape in a direct and immediate fashion. US Attorneys also have incredible freedom to reorient the undercurrent priorities of the federal legal system and to the center historically under proceedings, but systemic remainscrimes such as corporate and white collar malfeasance,” should they so choose.
Unfortunately, this autonomy and discretion also means that US attorneys can enact enormous harm through the powers and prestige of their offices. Considering Landrum’s record, and her obvious comfort using the legal system to needlessly penalize already marginalized communities and enrich herself, there is no reason to believe that she wouldn’t do just that.
President Biden’s nominees should reflect the ideals and policy commitments that he has established as administration priorities. If he believes even a fraction of what he says about the need for deep reforms to the criminal legal system on the campaign trail, Landrum cannot be nominated for the position of US attorney.
Blue Slips and Sen. Dick Durbin
President Biden’s broken promises on criminal legal reform are mirrored in Congress by the failure of Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) to eliminate the use of blue slips—a senatorial courtesy entrenched in anti-democratic ideals.
Blue slips are assessments from senators regarding executive branch nominees in their state to federal judicial roles. We’ve heard a lot about how this is used by Republicans to arbitrarily refuse to confirm qualified district court judges put forward by Democratic presidents, while Democrats acquiesce in the reverse scenario, waving through judges who fail to meet even basic standards for the positions to which they are nominated.
But the blue slip process is also used for US attorneys, with similar dynamics among Democrats and Republicans. US we’ve written previously“This has created a defined imbalance between the political parties wherein Republicans exert extraordinary influence over the courts and the federal legal landscape no matter which party controls government.”
In short, the blue slip process has been a racist tool weaponized by conservative senators to promote their preferred candidates for US attorney positions, and block more progressive candidates. This has been how things have operated for decades, back to the 1950s, when the notorious segregationist Sen. James Eastland (D-MS) used the process to “nominate pro-segregation candidates to high level positions across the DOJ and the Judiciary and to actively hinder the local enforcement of racial justice reforms established by the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.”
Mon. Durbin has stated that he intends to keep the blue slip process in place for district-level nominees, including US attorneys as well as judges, despite ongoing pressure to eliminate their role to ensure that nominees actually reflect the policies and goals of the person who (fairly and freely) won the presidency.
So the president himself, DOJ leadership, and Democratic leadership in the Senate have all actively walked back professed commitments to reforming this nation’s deeply violent criminal legal system at every turn. The results demonstrate a greater prioritization of political expediency and status quo power dynamics over challenges to harmful systems that the public has demanded.