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Politically Thinking: State might benefit from A.G. race

Attorney General William Sorrell has not faced a competitive election in his 14 years in office. In 1997, former Gov. Howard Dean nominated Attorney General Jeffrey Amestoy to become Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. At the same time, Dean appointed Sorrell, his administration secretary, to succeed Amestoy. In each of the seven elections from 1998 through 2010, Sorrell was re-elected without a serious contest.
Elections are an important mechanism for holding officeholders accountable to the public. The absence of serious electoral competition can allow incumbents to become set in their ways and not responsive to important concerns. Both the general public and the legal community in Vermont would be well-served by a competitive election for attorney general in 2012.
There are several areas where Sorrell could be challenged by an opponent next year. On Sorrell’s watch, the state has lost two high-profile cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, one on campaign financing, the other on prescription data mining. In both cases, high court justices indicated that the state’s case, as argued by Sorrell and his staff, was weak. Some legal observers also believe the state runs a high risk of losing the case brought by Entergy over Vermont Yankee’s relicensing.
Is the state losing these cases because Sorrell and his staff are not effective appellate advocates? Or is Sorrell allowing the Legislature to enact, and the governor to sign, unconstitutional statutes? Should he be recommending these laws not be passed in the first place, rather than trying to defend them in court?
On another issue, is Sorrell sufficiently committed to the goals of open government and transparency? His office tends to take a broad reading of the exemptions in the state’s open meeting, public disclosure and freedom of information laws. Are these positions consistent with the state’s political traditions and values?
When police in Vermont have been charged with misconduct, has the attorney general’s office conducted a rigorous review of these cases, which often involve allegations of excessive force or violations of civil rights? Has Sorrell, a former prosecutor himself, shown too much deference to police chiefs and officers?
All of these questions would be appropriate for a challenger to ask Sorrell in a campaign. But such a campaign requires a high-profile challenger whom the voters could see as a credible candidate for attorney general.
One such candidate could be Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, who has indicated his interest in running for attorney general. Would Donovan be willing to take on Sorrell in next year’s Democratic primary? Donovan’s term as state’s attorney expires in 2014, so he could run for attorney general next year without the risk of holding no office after an unsuccessful campaign. Donovan and Sorrell both come from long-time Burlington political families. A primary contest between the two men would energize voters, especially in Chittenden County.
On the Republican side, the GOP has in the past had difficulty recruiting candidates to take on Sorrell. Many attorneys in private practice are reluctant to challenge the sitting attorney general, fearing that such a campaign might reflect adversely on their clients in cases involving the state. However, there are some Republican state’s attorneys, whose terms expire in 2014, who might consider being recruited by the GOP to run for attorney general in 2012. Donovan’s entering the Democratic primary would also make it more likely that a high-profile Republican candidate would file next year.
Sorrell may deserve another term as attorney general, but he should earn it at the polls rather than be re-elected in a walkover.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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