A sex-crimes prosecutor tapped by Senate Republicans to question Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about allegations of sexual assault could have a tough time in such a contentious political environment, Arizona attorneys who know her said Wednesday.
But her boss says Rachel Mitchell is a hard-hitting attorney who is used to handling high-profile cases and is one of the few prosecutors in the country with a deep understanding of working with sexual abuse victims.
Mitchell, a Republican, was expected to question Kavanaugh and the first woman to accuse him of sexual misconduct at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday. Christine Blasey Ford's allegation that Kavanaugh drunkenly assaulted her when they were teenagers has raised a political storm in the #MeToo era and the GOP's all-male presence on the panel made some want a woman to question Ford.
Mitchell is chief of the Special Victims Division in the Maricopa County attorney's office in Phoenix. She supervises attorneys who handle cases involving child molestation, sexual assault and computer crimes against children in Arizona's most populous county.
"She is about evidence-based approaches and isn't an activist on one side or the other," said Matt Long, a private Phoenix attorney who once worked for Mitchell and now handles sex abuse cases. "She is rare: a career prosecutor who is bound to issues rather than politics."
But, he added: "There is nothing in this process to make me comfortable that this process is about fairness, truth and evidence."
Arizona defense attorney David Michael Cantor said the choice of a longtime sex-crimes prosecutor to question Kavanaugh and his accuser was "ironic."
"If she gives him a pass, if she doesn't dig down and get the guy to squirm, it could hurt her reputation," said Cantor, who runs the Phoenix law firm DM Cantor. "But if she grills both of them equally, she'll be a superstar."
Mitchell has not responded to requests for comment sent through the county attorney's office.
Since Ford came forward, allegations from two other women have emerged, but Republicans have not announced any plans to focus Thursday's session on those claims. Kavanaugh has denied all the accusations.
Rick Romley, the former top county prosecutor in metro Phoenix who was once Mitchell's boss, praised her for a career devoted to helping victims.
But he said that if Mitchell had asked him, he would have recommended she not take the assignment because an investigation hasn't been conducted into the allegations and Mitchell hasn't been given much time to prepare for the hearing.
"It's a recipe for disaster," Romley said.
He also noted that she's not a politician and will now be in the spotlight: "It can throw your game off."
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, Mitchell's current boss, doesn't share those concerns.
"She has been doing that her entire career," Montgomery said. "This is a different setting. But this isn't much different than what she has had to work with."
Mitchell was part of the team of prosecutors who pressed cases against Catholic priests in a sex abuse scandal about 15 years ago in Phoenix.
She also was among the prosecutors who examined some of the hundreds of sex-crime cases botched by then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office over a three-year period ending in 2007 to determine whether any could be salvaged and taken to court.
Mitchell also has helped train psychologists, medical professionals, forensic interviewers and detectives in sex-crimes issues.
Montgomery said he wasn't shocked when he got a call Saturday from two Judiciary Committee staffers inquiring about Mitchell's background, availability and qualifications. He said it was the first time he heard about the possibility of her participating in the Kavanaugh hearing.
Montgomery said he didn't talk with anyone in Washington about picking Mitchell for the job before that.
She is among a small number of prosecutors nationwide who deeply understands working with sexual abuse victims, so it isn't surprising her name popped up in connection with the Kavanaugh hearing, he said.
"This could have been nothing more than seeking someone with the right kind of professional qualifications, and they found them," Montgomery added.
Mitchell "has been recognized in the legal community for her experience and objectivity," committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said in a statement Tuesday.
Mitchell helped create the first-ever sex-crimes protocol for the county attorney office's that was introduced last year. It will ensure prosecutors have a guide "so that we can do the best we can for victims," Mitchell told a local NPR station in January.
"It's always hard to know which victims were not victims or which people were not victims because your system worked," Mitchell told Phoenix radio station KJZZ.
Tasha Menaker of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual Violence said she worked with Mitchell for three years on the protocol and found her to be "very experienced, intelligent, detail oriented and very straightforward."