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Welch Brings Public Defender View to Senate Judiciary Panel

Feb 9, 2023

Peter Welch in the US Senate in November 2022.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Democrat Peter Welch, the newest member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, shares something in common with many of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees: a public defender background.

Welch, who replaced Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the chamber and on the committee, was a local defender early in his career before serving in the Vermont legislature and the US House.

“I just had a desire to help folks who really didn’t have access to justice,” Welch said in an interview with Bloomberg Law. “And then secondly, I liked being in the courtroom.”

Biden has prioritized demographic and professional diversity among his judicial nominees. That includes former public defenders, who haven’t historically been represented in judicial appointments. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is a prime example as the first former public defender on the Supreme Court.

Now, Welch will be among senators vetting those judicial picks. He agrees it’s important to have a bench that includes a variety of backgrounds, including those that deviate from tradition.

“A healthy judicial system is going to include folks who have corporate litigation experience, family law experience, prosecutorial experience, but it should also include public defense experience,” Welch said. “And the path to a career on the bench has usually been much more through corporate law and through prosecution.”

Before his election to the Senate, Welch served eight terms in the US House where he was chief deputy whip of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. At 75, he became the oldest elected first-term senator, according to the Senate Historical Office.

Leahy Legacy

Including diverse perspectives on the bench is something Welch said he has in common with Leahy, who was a longtime member of the Judiciary Committee and a former chair.

Welch said he served as a public defender with Senior Judge William K. Sessions of the US District Court for the District of Vermont, whom Leahy recommended for the bench. Other Leahy recommendations had prosecutorial backgrounds, said Welch, a former campaign staffer for his Senate predecessor nearly 50 years ago.

Welch was drawn to public defense following his civil rights work in Chicago before he went to law school at the University of California Berkeley. He worked for an organization affiliated with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference where he encountered poverty, institutional challenges, and people who faced unfair or discriminatory laws.

His experience as a public defender in Vermont also shaped the way he views potential changes to the criminal justice system.

While the criminal justice system is important, Welch said he saw an over reliance on it as a way to deal with unrelated problems. He said many of his clients had substance abuse and mental health issues and the criminal justice system is where they ended up.

“That perspective, I think, is an important component of evaluating what criminal justice reform should include,” Welch said.

Crucial Vote

Judiciary Committee Democrats outnumber Republicans 11-10 with Welch aboard, which will be important for winning committee approval of controversial Biden nominees. That was true of his first votes at the committee meeting on Thursday, where several judicial nominees advanced to the floor along party lines.

Last Congress, the committee was evenly divided, and ties added an extra floor vote to the confirmation process.

Welch highlighted immigration, overhauling the criminal justice system , and copyright and patent law as other areas that interested him in joining the committee. A “major concern” for him is bringing down the cost of pharmaceuticals and addressing what he said is patent abuse by companies in drug pricing.

Story Written by Madison Alder, Bloomberg Law

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