Sears proposes making Vt. AG an appointee

Under a bill proposed by the powerful chair of the Judiciary Committee, the Vermont Attorney General, now an elected office, would become an appointed position.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, wants to give the governor the authority to handpick the attorney general, with the consent of the state Senate.

Sears: Not politically motivated

The bill, S.270, would also make it possible for the governor -- and any member of the General Assembly -- to remove the attorney general from office for misconduct, inefficiency in office or failure to perform his or her duty.

The Vermont Attorney General enforces the state's laws, defends the state when it is sued and handles criminal and civil cases.

Sears says the legislation is not politically motivated or directed at the current Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

The bill would not go into effect until 2016 -- after the next election cycle.

"The reason I did that was because the attorney general has already announced for re-election and I didn't want it to be a slap at the AG," Sears said.

Sorrell was appointed Vermont Attorney General in 1997 by Gov. Howard Dean after Jeffrey Amestoy resigned to become chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.

Sorrell, who has been elected eight times, says taking away the electoral process for attorney general "arguably makes the position more political rather than less political."

"Most people appreciate the independence of the office," Sorrell said.

A gubernatorial appointee would be beholden to the governor, Sorrell suggested. He said the administration of justice by the state's chief law enforcement officer shouldn't be affected by the kind of partisanship in which politicians reward friends and punish enemies.

"I look forward to debating the issue with Sen. Sears and others, if the opportunity arises," Sorrell said.

Sears, who is chair of the Corrections Oversight Committee and a close friend of Gov. Peter Shumlin, says he simply wants the Attorney General to function more like the Defender General. Sears believes that an appointed AG would have more authority over state's attorneys.

Sears also wants to see more uniformity in the way cases are handled from county to county.

"One of the problems that I see is partly due to judges but also due to state attorneys," Sears says. "We have 14 systems of justice."

Sorrell says his office has concurrent jurisdiction over state's attorneys cases already. "Sometimes when state's attorney has a conflict, and sometimes when the case is multi-victim and cases get more complicated, some of offices would like us to assist or take over," Sorrell said. "I'm surprised the senator is unaware of that. I'm not sure how an appointed attorney general is able to better work with the state's attorney than an elected attorney general."

Sorrell has been criticized for losing three high-profile cases that have gone to federal court, two of which have reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The cases have been costly and some say humiliating for the state.


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