Editorial: The Case for Independence; Vt. Bill to Appoint AG Is a Bad Idea

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell has been wrong on a number of issues in the recent past, at least according to our lights. We have disagreed strongly, for example, with his handling of police brutality allegations and his withholding of investigative files in those cases from public disclosure. But we think Sorrell is absolutely correct to oppose new legislation that would make his job one appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, instead of elected, as it currently is.

A bill filed by state Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the respected chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would make the change effective in 2016, after the next term of office. Sears said the timing is important, because he wanted to make sure that the proposal wasn’t seen as a political swipe at Sorrell, who has announced that he will seek a ninth two-year term this fall. It’s a sensitive point, given that Sears endorsed Sorrell’s primary opponent in 2012, and that the senator is seen as a close ally of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who, it can be inferred, is not Sorrell’s biggest fan.

But even taking Sears’ assurances at face value, it’s hard to see what the change would accomplish except to compromise the independence of the Attorney General’s Office. The senator’s rationale is that he is concerned that similar cases are handled differently from county to county, and that an appointed attorney general would be better able to promote uniformity in the justice system, as well as become an effective leader in advocating for law enforcement policies throughout Vermont.

The point Sears makes about the lack of uniformity is well taken. Each of the 14 elected state’s attorneys can set his or her own prosecutorial priorities and institute programs for handling certain kinds of cases. Why an appointed attorney general would exercise more authority over those independently elected officials, however, is not clear, at least to us. And so far as we know, there is nothing that now prevents the attorney general from taking the statewide lead in advocating for law enforcement policies.

But the dangers of a gubernatorially appointed attorney general seem manifest, which is perhaps why only five states, including New Hampshire, have that system. Prosecutors are pledged to be independent, and their decisions ought to be free of any suggestion that they are doing the bidding of others, including the state’s chief executive. For example, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that a public corruption case might come along that would put an appointed attorney general in a conflict-of-interest position with the person who appointed him or her.

The election of the attorney general means that he or she is directly accountable to the voters, not to the governor. Under the current system, it is also possible to have a governor and an attorney general from different political parties, which builds yet another check-and-balance mechanism into the system. As Sorrell, who has said he will testify against the bill if it comes up during the current legislative session, said, “I think the average Vermonter values the independence of the office of attorney general, as do the voters of 44 other states.”

We tend to think that in this case, changing the system is not the answer — although changing the incumbent might be.