BRATTLEBORO—William Sorrell, Vermont’s longest-serving Attorney General, has faced little opposition at the ballot box over the past 15 years.
This election, however, he faces fellow Democrat T.J. Donovan. Sorrell says he welcomes the competition.
“There’s a lot more to be done,” he said about why he’s running again. “I still have great energy for the job.”
During a recent visit to Brattleboro, Sorrell discussed his 15 years in office, his lost court cases, and his big wins.
“I’m not resting on my laurels,” Sorrell said.
Appointed by then-Gov. Howard Dean in 1997, the Burlington native served from 2004 to 2005 as president of the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG). According to Sorrell’s campaign website, in 2003, fellow AGs awarded him the NAAG’s Kelley-Wyman Award, given annually to the “Outstanding Attorney General.” Sorrell currently serves as Chair of the NAAG Mission Foundation Board and is a member of the NAAG Executive Committee.
Sorrell served two years as Chittenden County Deputy State’s Attorney and two rounds as State’s Attorney, from 1977 to 1978, and again from 1989 to 1992. He also worked in private practice at McNeil, Murray & Sorrell and as Dean’s Secretary of Administration. He graduated from University of Notre Dame and Cornell Law School.
Sorrell said his reverence for the responsibility for the AG position has not wavered. He doesn’t view the office as a political one, despite running on the Democratic ticket. Instead, he said, has taken an oath to perform “equal justice to all men and women.”
“How much trust is there in that?” he said.
In Sorrell’s view, justice is a combination of abiding by the letter of the law while considering the people’s lives.
“Justice does not mean everyone is treated the same in all cases,” he said adding that cases had to adjust to the facts of the crime and the realities of the people involved.
For the record
Four weeks after assuming his office 15 years ago, Sorrell filed litigation against the tobacco industry, winning Vermont a share of more than $300 million.
The payout, said Sorrell, boils down to $25 million per year to the state for as long as the industry cranks out tobacco products.
Sorrell said his office has filed campaign finance suits against both political parties. In 2010, the office filed two suits — one against the Republican Governor’s Association, the other against Green Mountain Future, an organization primarily funded by the Democratic Governors Association. The AG’s office claimed both organizations ran political ads without registering with the Secretary of State’s Office, failed to file required disclosure reports, and omitted proper identification information from its advertisements.
The AG’s office last year won a consumer protection agreement from four companies to refund Vermont telephone customers $419,000 and for each company to pay $10,000 to the state. The companies had “crammed” about 1,300 customers’ bills with unauthorized services and charges.
The AG’s office has also joined an 11-state coalition to challenge Arizona’s immigration law.
This past session, Sorrell convinced the Legislature to allocate $200,000 for law enforcement measures against child pornography.
Sorrell said that the child pornography initiative focuses on tracking file-sharing sites that facilitate the trafficking of videos. According to Sorrell, there’s a correlation between people who download child porn and their likelihood of abusing a child.
The other side of the coin
In Brattleboro, Sorrell’s name is linked to perceived failed cases like the shooting of Robert Woodward by police at All Souls Church in December 2001, or Entergy’s win against the state in federal court last year.
“Totally erroneous, totally,” Sorrell said in response to the perception that he’s a loser in court.
No other attorney general in Vermont history has prosecuted more than 20 law enforcement officers including sheriffs, troopers, and deputies, he said.
He described the Woodward shooting as a “tragic incident,” but not a criminal assault by police. There was not enough evidence for criminal charges against the police and Sorrell felt charging the officers would be irresponsible.
But what about the cases Sorrell hasn’t won, like the campaign finance reform or round one of the Entergy v. Vermont case?
Sorrell responded saying that losing those cases reflected less the quality of his advocacy than the conservative make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court. Lower courts had ruled in favor of Vermont’s campaign reform law, he said.
“No lawyer wins all cases,” he said.
Sorrell argued that a Supreme Court that could rule in favor of super-PAC Citizens United, changing 200 years of American campaign financing, would not uphold Vermont’s progressive laws.
Still, said Sorrell, the state should not shrink from enacting progressive legislation, but people should expect that the state’s legislation will face challenges.
Vermont has a proud history of not being afraid to venture ahead of the country, he said pointing to Vermont’s constitution, written in 1777, which outlawed slavery and gave voting rights to all men.
This tradition continues with laws governing the labeling of items containing mercury, consumer protection laws, and adopting the “California standard” for auto emissions, he said.
Even with the campaign finance law, he said legislators told him they knew the state would get sued, but they believed the state stood on the right side of the issue.
In recent conversations with lawmakers over the GMO labeling bill, which is waiting in the Judiciary Committee until next session, Sorrell said that the bill “pushed the envelope.” The Legislature listened, he said, and applied a stipulation that Vermont’s bill wouldn’t become active until California and two other New England states adopted similar legislation.
Sorrell said that unless his office gives an opinion to the Legislature that a potential bill is illegal, his office will defend Vermont laws when attacked.
“It‘s a priority to have Vermont law upheld in my next term,” he said. “Entergy v. Vermont is far from over.”
U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha ruled in Entergy’s favor earlier this year on the company’s claim that the state had preempted federal law by attempting to regulate safety at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
In the 1983 Pacific Gas & Electric v. California case, the biggest preemption case in the U.S., California lost at trial but prevailed before the U.S. Supreme Court, said Sorrell.
The AG’s office won’t stand before the appeals court alone.
According to Sorrell, the office hired D.C. law firm Kellog, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans, and Figel, P.L.L.C., for $200,000 to help build strategy and write briefs for the Entergy case. The law firm will act as co-council for the state during the appeal process.
“We didn’t win with Judge Murtha, but that’s just round one,” he said.
Sorrell takes issue with the perception he didn’t fight hard enough to win the Entergy v. Vermont case.
The AG’s office employs 75 top-level attorneys, Sorrell said. Last year, from the filing of the suit in April right through to the September hearing, the team trying the Entergy case focused on nothing but the case, while Sorrell focused on building the campaign finance case.
“The line-up was not junior varsity,” he said. “I’m proud of the caliber of team I put together.”
Energy for the job
Overall, Sorrell claims a winning track record in court. “We win the vast majority of cases and bring millions of dollars into this state,” he said.
According to Sorrell, the AG’s office brought over $40 million in settlements this year and for the two years previous.
Conversely, the state has had to pay out $3.1 million over his 15 years in office.
That’s well over a 90 percent win rate, he said.
Sorrell describes previous re-election campaigns without competition as “a luxury” that allowed him to continue focusing on his job during the campaign.
He gives the choice to the voters.
“I think there should be healthy competition,” he said. “I’m happy to defend my record.”
“It’s very, very rewarding work,” Sorrell said. “You don’t make huge amounts of money, but you get to do the right thing day in and day out.”