U.S. Senate confirms Chauvin prosecutor, three others to federal bench

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell questions a witness on the second day of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. March 30, 2021 in a still image from video. Pool via REUTERS

(Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed to the bench a prominent Minnesota lawyer who last year helped successfully prosecute former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.

Jerry Blackwell was one of four of President Joe Biden's nominees to federal district courts to be confirmed on Wednesday, with senators voting 51-43 in favor of the trial lawyer becoming a life-tenured judge in Minnesota.

Three nominees to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania were also confirmed: Mia Perez and Kai Scott, who are both currently state court judges in Philadelphia, and John Murphy, a partner at Baker & Hostetler.

The Senate has now confirmed 94 of the Democratic president's judicial nominees, the vast majority of whom are women or people of color in keeping with Biden's pledge to bring greater diversity to the federal bench.

Blackwell, who is Black, co-founded the litigation boutique Blackwell Burke and had handled complex and mass tort litigation for clients including 3M Co, ConAgra Brands Inc and General Mills Inc.

At the request of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, he joined the prosecution team that secured Chauvin's conviction for murdering Floyd, a Black man, during a May 2020 arrest that sparked outcries against racial injustice across the country.

As a special assistant attorney general, Blackwell, on a pro bono basis, examined witnesses, including the teen who shot the widely seen video of Floyd under the white officer's knee, and delivered the opening statement and the rebuttal argument at the trial's close.

Chauvin was sentenced in 2021 to 22-1/2 years in prison in that state case, and was later sentenced to a concurrent 21-year term after pleading guilty to federal charges of violating Floyd's civil rights.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in July, Senator Dick Durbin, the panel's Democratic chairman, praised Blackwell for taking on the "awesome responsibility" of prosecuting Chauvin, saying he "couldn’t have asked for a better administration of justice in that courtroom."

Asked by Durbin if he saw anything to be hopeful about regarding race in America, Blackwell cited a "groundswell" of people who after Floyd's death said "we are better than this."

"It was people from all races, colors, persuasions who stood up to be a part of this experiment to improve, to make America better," he said. "It inspired me to want to continue in this trajectory of service, this time toward the bench."

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.