Vermont Attorney General candidates sharpen differences in Seven Days/CCTV debate

Attorney General Bill Sorrell and challenger TJ Donovan debated in Burlington's City Hall Wednesday. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Attorney General Bill Sorrell, right, and challenger TJ Donovan debated in Burlington's City Hall Wednesday. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

The Democratic candidates for attorney general worked hard Tuesday night to emphasize their differences in a race where both candidates largely agreed on the issues.

In a debate sponsored by Seven Days and Channel 17, incumbent AG Bill Sorrell faced off against challenger TJ Donovan, differing over the “soda tax,” the corrections budget and GMO labeling.

On other issues the candidates were in synch. Sorrell and Donovan lined up on a philosophical exemption for parents who don’t want to immunize their children (removing the exemption could open the state to a lawsuit, they said), pension forfeiture for state workers convicted of embezzlement (we should have a law on the books), and F-35s (the planes should be flown over communities that would be in the fly zone).

The rhetoric that’s become typical of this summer’s biggest race prevailed Wednesday night. Donovan pointed out Sorrell’s recent losses defending state laws and promised he would make an up-front effort to consult the Legislature as lawmakers craft legislation that might draw fire in the courts. Sorrell talked about his record on consumer protection and his opponent’s lack of experience.

The differences between the two candidates sharpened when they were allowed to ask questions of each other. Donovan (who won the pre-debate coin toss) started with the corrections budget.

“In the last 15 years, the corrections budget has gone up 175 percent,” Donovan said. “What initiatives have you implemented to address the issues of substance abuse, mental illness and poverty in the criminal justice system in Vermont?”

Sorrell responded that his office helped develop Act 80, a 2004 law that set aside $50,000 from the state budget to develop a training program to help officers respond effectively to mental health crises. He didn’t address the issues of drugs or poverty.

Then Sorrell asked Donovan a question that split hairs, and it backfired.

“Do you believe that the Legislature can pass a statute that has mandated labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms and that that statute would not be seriously challenged in court?” Sorrell asked.

“I have been critical of your lack of engagement in the Legislature,” Donovan said unabashedly. “I think the answer is this: You can never prevent a lawsuit, but you can prevent a good lawsuit.”

In reference to Vermont’s recent high-profile loss in the U.S. Supreme Court — the prescription drug case, which Sorrell argued himself — Donovan took a passive aggressive swipe.

“My position is this, Bill: I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I know when to ask for help,” Donovan said.

While the debate’s most incisive moments were responses to candidates’ questions, Sorrell found himself with nothing to say twice in a row while Donovan rallied the crowd in response to an audience question directed to Sorrell.

WCAX’s Kristin Carlson asked the candidates what they thought was the most important decision to come out of the Vermont Supreme Court this year. Sorrell got to answer first.

“Hmm, let me think about that,” Sorrell said. “Um, I … no case comes to mind right now as the most important decision out of the Vermont Supreme Court. I can think of several out of the U.S. Supreme Court that I would say is the most important out of the last year but I don’t have one that readily comes to mind out of the Vermont Supreme Court.”

Donovan had a ready answer.

“I think the Rutland Herald decision, which basically put the ball back in the court of the Legislature on the issue of public disclosure, has been a much-debated topic for many folks,” he said. “I think we all can agree that whether it’s 200 or 300 exemptions, that’s a lot — that’s too many.”

Donovan kept talking about public records, as Sorrell sat in silence.

“Attorney General Sorrell,” Donovan said “in 15 years, what have you done to propose new legislation on public records?”

“Um,” Sorrell said slowly, “I … can’t think of what I’ve done on public records.” As he formulated his answer, he sped up a bit. “Because I think that the Legislature, by and large, has come down on the side of personal privacy for Vermonters.” He pointed out that his office won the Rutland Herald case.

Blaming the Legislature has been a common refrain for Sorrell this summer. He has said his losses are the price an attorney general must pay in a state that passes legislation that pushes legal limits.

Taylor Dobbs

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  • Scott McCarty

    Yes, I support TJ but I think he won this one. I watched the debate from home and while I think Bill has certainly caught his stride more — the silence and lack of answers on a few questions was deafening.

    I was a little concerned about the Super PAC funding. Worries me about what may be in the works for Vermont in the general election.

  • Kelli Kazmarski

    To say that Mr. Sorrell has been “blaming the legislature” (last paragraph of above article) seems to me an unfair and inaccurate characterization of his position on the proper role of an attorney general. Mr. Sorrell has accurately pointed out the limits of the office of attorney general in terms of legislative interaction. Neither Mr. Sorrell nor any attorney general as a member of the executive branch of government may dictate legislation to the legislative branch of government. It is hardly “blaming” to point out that while his office may and should consult with the legislature and offer suggestions as to the constitutionality of language, in the end the job of the attorney general is to enforce the law as written.

  • Barry Kade

    Is the debate available for download anywhere?

  • Julie Hansen

    I keep wondering if people missed their civics classes.

    I don’t disagree that no one likes to lose, especially when it costs money, but the attorney general cannot, and should not, write the law. Legislatures have a job and it is to write the law. Yes, they can work with the AG, but they are not required, nor should they be, to write the law according to his or her recommendations. I believe that legislators have even spoken to this issue and said that they wanted to go forward with a bold bill, despite cautions from the AG.

    I have been to the statehouse on many occasions and have seen members of the AG office testifying and participating with committees. The AG is represented and does work with them, but they will write the bill they want to write.

    Vermont is at the forefront of many important issues facing the nation: protecting the environment and ensuring health care for all citizens to name a couple. Vermont laws push the boundaries, but I am proud of that. I think lots of Vermonters are.

    This is really not about whether one wants a new AG; it is about understanding how the system works. It’s not about blaming the legislature, it’s about explaining how it works.

    Voting in a new AG is also part of that system and one should certainly vote for the candidate of one’s choice, but do let’s be clear about the parameters of the job.

    Checks, balances, separation of power.

  • Liz Martin

    Wow, this article is blatantly biased and ignoring TJ’s own set of flubs from last night. Yes, TJ always has an answer, regardless of whether or not he is actually saying something of substance.

    TJ failed to answer the second audience question regarding mental health and police brutality, he didn’t actually provide an answer regarding the philosophy/religion question (“I don’t have an answer…”), and he misquoted Mr. Sorrell (re: Mark Johnson show).

    And, finally, to say that Mr. Sorrell is “blaming the Legislature” is blatantly ignoring that wonderful document we call the Constitution. There is a separation of powers that exists, and the Legislature and the Attorney General are in separate branches of the government. Mr. Sorrell can work with the Legislature, advise them on the legality of their laws, but, ultimately, he must then uphold the law they pass, regardless of whether or not her personally supports it. Regardless of how much TJ thinks he can encourage the Legislature to pass a law, they may choose to ignore his warnings or his suggestions, as they have their own agenda that they must pursue.

    For TJ to sit back and say “well, I know when to ask for help” is an easy way of saying, “well, I don’t actually plan on arguing any of these cases, but I am happy to hire someone to do it for me.” Vermont doesn’t need an Attorney General who is going to sit back and hire others to do his work, we need an Attorney General who is willing to stand up and fight. It is not about the amount of experience you have in front of the Supreme Court, as that does not determine whether or not you will succeed. Right now, we have a court that passed Citizens United; we are facing one of the most conservative Supreme Courts that we have seen in quite some time.

  • Virginia Burgess

    TJ did NOT misquote the Atorney General on Mark Johnson. Mark Johnson confirmed that on his show this morning. The Attoeny General cannot change the fact of his statement in a debate 30 miles away because he wishes it were so!

    • Liz Martin

      Actually, TJ did misquote Mr. Sorrell. Bill never once said we need more prisons, he said, instead, that our beds are full, and at most we could consider creating minimum security facilities, not “brick and mortar” (i.e. prisons). Mr. Sorrell noted that the people who are currently in prison are there because they are a threat to society. Let’s at least recognize when TJ is choosing to blatantly distort when Mr. Sorrell is saying.

      I could have sworn that I remember him signing a positive campaign pledge….

      • John Charron

        Well, I think he confusion lies in what the difference is between what “minimum security FACILITIES” are compared to what “minimum security PRISONS” are. Besides the titles I don’t know what the differences would be… would these facilities have guards? Would the prisoners (can we still call them prisoners if these aren’t prison?) still be “incarcerated?” Would the facilities be made of something else besides brick and mortar because they’re not prisons? Three differences would be great.

        All I know is that if these people are a threat to society, they’re in prison, and the the beds are full we’re not going to keep them in prisons but minimum security facilities?

        • Christian Noll

          John thank you for your great comments.

          A few items as I’ve learned them over the years.

          1) Maximum, Medium or Minimum security “Facilities” ARE “Prisons.” Yup.. Sorry but they will be occupied or run by DOC employees or “Correctional Staff.” A prison and a facility in the correctional context ARE the buildings in which incarcerated are housed and the SAME.

          2) We try not to use the “Guard” word anymore. The “G” word goes unappreciated and is perjorative. “CO” or Correctional Officer is the politically correct nomenclature for Correctional Officer these days.

          3) Personally I try not to use the word “Prisoners” when identifying inmates of a particular correctional facility. Its almost like the “G” word in that its considered by many as more derogatory than, inmate or offenders

          For me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, “Minimum Security Facilities” will be run and operated by Vermont DOC staff and CO’s.

          These are “Prisons.”

          • John Charron

            Thanks for the clarity Christian. I will be sure to use the proper terms and language, surrounding this topic, so there won’t be any confusion!

  • John Charron

    And TJ signed that pledge… I know some people that live in houses, some in condos, some in apartments. They all know those places as home, you know what I mean. “prison” “facility” is it still jail time under the department of corrections and it’s b

  • John Charron

    Minimum: The lowest level of security to which an inmate can be assigned directly. This type of prison is typically a “prison farm”, or other work-oriented facility, and most often houses petty or “white collar” criminals.

    Is there more of a difference with a “facility” over a “prison?” does the budget for the “facility” not fall under the department of corrections?

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