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Eric Davis: Attorney general candidates given food for thought

The last competitive open-seat election for Vermont attorney general was in 1984. Jeffrey Amestoy was elected attorney general that year, and served until 1997, when Gov. Howard Dean nominated him to be Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. Dean appointed William Sorrell to succeed Amestoy as attorney general. Sorrell has been re-elected every two years since 1998. He announced recently that he would not seek another term next year.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan has already declared his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic nomination for attorney general. Donovan, who nearly defeated Sorrell in the Democratic primary in 2012, has to be considered the front-runner for the position at this time. However, the race could turn out to be competitive, depending on whether other Democrats choose to challenge Donovan in the primary and whether the Republicans and the Progressives can recruit experienced and politically savvy lawyers to be candidates.
There are several issues that all candidates for attorney general should address in the upcoming campaign. Here are a few of them:
Opioid addiction. How will the next attorney general build on some of the initiatives started in the last two years to address Vermont’s serious problem of opioid addiction? How can police, prosecutors, corrections, the attorney general’s office, and the health care and mental health systems work together on this issue?
Marijuana legalization. The 2016 Legislature might well vote to legalize the purchase of small amounts of marijuana for recreational purposes. Implementation of such a statute would take several years.
What are the major issues that the state should address if cannabis becomes a legal drug for recreational purposes? How should the state regulate growers and vendors? Should edibles be permitted? What standards should be established for marijuana-impaired driving? How should Vermont coordinate its policies with Massachusetts, if Bay State voters decide to legalize marijuana in a November 2016 referendum?
Privacy concerns. In the age of “big data,” both governmental agencies (such as police departments with license plate readers on patrol cars) and private businesses (such as Google and other providers of online services) are collecting more and more information about citizens’ lawful, everyday activities. Does there need to be more active regulation of such data-collection activities? What is the proper balance between giving public and private organizations the information they need to do their jobs and citizens’ desires to remain anonymous and to be left alone? Does Vermont need electronic privacy legislation, as enacted recently in Maine, California and Utah?
Investigations of police misconduct. Sorrell’s office almost always sided with the police in instances in which police practices were challenged, often by family members of those killed or injured in police shootings. Can the attorney general provide a truly independent evaluation of police conduct in such situations? Would the state be well-served by having more outside involvement in these investigations?
Federal appellate litigation. Vermont has recently lost several high-profile cases in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. These cases often involved statutes passed by the Legislature that the federal courts determined had serious constitutional impairments. Should the attorney general be more active during legislative deliberations, bringing to the attention of lawmakers situations where proposed statutes go outside the bounds of accepted judicial doctrine? Or should the attorney general attempt to convince the federal appellate courts that they should revise their doctrine?
Campaign finance. Sorrell is under investigation over allegations that he solicited campaign contributions from out-of-state law firms that offered to handle cases for the state on a contingency fee basis. Should candidates for attorney general accept any contributions from lawyers and law firms representing the state, or clients likely to sue, or be sued by, the state?
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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