Push made to have AG appointed
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | January 03,2014
MONTPELIER — Legislation introduced by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee seeks to turn the state’s attorney general post into a position appointed by the governor.
The bill, S.270, introduced by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, would grant authority to the governor to appoint the attorney general with the consent of the Senate. Currently, it is one of five statewide offices elected directly by voters, but is not a constitutional office like governor.
If passed, the bill would take effect in 2016, after the next election cycle.
The bill also lays out a process for the appointed attorney general to be removed from office.
Under the legislation, the governor or a member of the Legislature could petition for the removal of the attorney general. The petition would be reviewed by a panel including the governor, three members of the public appointed by the Speaker of the House and three members of the public appointed by the Senate Committee on Committees.
A majority of the panel, including the governor, would have to vote to accept the petition and then hold a hearing on removal. Removal could only occur if there was a finding by the majority of the panel, including the governor, that the attorney general committed misconduct, inefficiency in office, or incapacity or unfitness to perform assigned duties, or that the good of the office so requires.”
The bill provides an appeal process for an attorney general removed from office by filing a petition with the civil court in Montpelier.
Sears said his legislation is not aimed at current Attorney General William Sorrell, who recently announced he will seek re-election in November. Sorrell, a Democrat, was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1997 and has been re-elected to eight two-year terms. Sears had endorsed Sorrell’s primary opponent in 2012, State’s Attorney TJ Donovan of Chittenden County,
“It’s absolutely no slap at Bill Sorrell,” Sears said. “If it was politically motivated I would have set it at 2014, not 2016. I didn’t want it to be perceived as politically motivated.”
The legislation was drafted, Sears said, after conversations with a former attorney general in New Hampshire, one of five states that appoint the position. Sears said New Hampshire has seen justice applied more evenly around the state because the position is appointed.
“My concern for a long time … has been unequal justice around the state,” Sears said.
In Vermont, elected state’s attorneys in each county can prosecute crimes differently and seek varying sentences. Additionally, some state’s attorneys have launched successful programs that are not applied in other counties, according to Sears.
The bill is “geared toward trying to have someone in that position who is a leader in terms of the law enforcement policies in the state of Vermont,” he said, and works more closely with each of the state’s attorneys.
“Is shoplifting in Bennington any more serious in Bennington than it is in Burlington? They can be treated very differently,” Sears said.
The state’s defender general, who oversees the state’s public defenders, is already an appointed position. Matthew Valerio, the current defender general, was first appointed by former Republican Gov. James Douglas and reappointed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Sears said the legislation will likely be assigned to the Senate’s Government Operations Committee, not his.
“It really does have to do more with government operations and elections,” he said. “I don’t have any preconceived notion that the bill is going to be taken up and rushed through the Legislature.”
Sorrell said he plans to testify against the legislation if it is considered during the upcoming legislative session. He said having the governor appoint an attorney general would make the position “more political.”
“I look forward to debating the merits of this proposal should or more legislative committees decide to take it up,” Sorrell said. “I think the average Vermonter values the independence of the office of attorney general, as do the voters of 44 other states.”
Additionally, the legislation would not do anything to develop uniformity among the state’s attorneys, he said.
“My understanding is that he’s concerned that with the current state’s attorney system we have potentially 14 separate systems of justice spread across 14 counties,” Sorrell said. “I can understand that might be a concern, but making the attorney general a gubernatorial appointment does nothing to address that.”