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Bill Sorrell: VT's AG Loves His Job

July 22, 2012

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell. Photo by Christopher Roy

MONTPELIER – William “Bill” Sorrell, identified by Wikipedia as the longest serving attorney general in the history of the United States, hopes to retain his footprint in history. Gov. Howard Dean appointed Sorrell to the Attorney General’s office in 1997 to replace Jeffrey Amestoy, who was appointed Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.
Sorrell has won the race ever since.
Sorrell, a Democrat, faces Democrat Thomas “TJ” Donovan in the Aug. 28 primary. Previously, Sorrell has had a lot of voter support. This is the first time he has had a primary in the Democratic primary and the first time the Democratic State Committee has not endorsed him. The state committee endorsed Donovan in May 2012. They could have endorsed both candidates, but chose not to.
One of the benefits of the primary, said Sorrell, is that many Vermonters are learning for the first time about the important things the attorney general does.
Sorrell, who has raised more than $90,000, expects that amount to grow to over $100,000 by the end of the week, trailing the Democratic competition by about $40,000. The amount of money Sorrell raised so far is more than in any of his previous races. He is campaigning more aggressively this time because he is up against Donovan, who is Chittenden County State's Attorney. 
Vermonters, in general, have not contributed a lot of money to the attorney general’s races, but Sorrell thinks that will change, particularly when there’s the potential for national organizations to give money to the race. Attorney generals in other states have raised millions of dollars for their election or re-election efforts, Sorrell said. “The work is great,” Sorrell said about why he continues to run for the same office. “Being the state’s chief law enforcement officer, I’m very honored to hold the position. Not all people who are in an elected position are politically ambitious, trying to get somewhere else.”
In the past, Sorrell considered running for other offices, but realized he has a great job that has a lot to do with the health and safety of Vermonters and the quality of the environment. 
Sorrell has gone to a lot of senior citizen homes during this campaign because seniors tend to vote in higher percentages than other age demographics. Sorrell has also attended community events like concerts and parades.
“I’m really proud of the work I’ve done to help seniors, particularly to try to protect seniors from falling prey to various scams that seem to prey on seniors more than the rest of the populations," Sorrell said. “The laws (against scamming) by and large are fine,” he added. Scam artists are inclined to prey on seniors because seniors tend to be more trusting than younger individuals. Many seniors frequently live alone and there is a social isolation. “Somebody calling on the phone, more often than not, can find a senior to talk to. Seniors, by and large, are less rude than others, so they don’t hang up as readily.”
Sorrell said he supports "bias free" law enforcement.
"Under our constitution, state and federal, you're innocent until proving guilty. It's not that you're guilty until you've prove yourself innocent. Vermont law enforcement should not be enforcing federal immigration law more stringently or aggressively than federal law enforcement is enforcing federal immigration laws. And so that we should be leaving otherwise law abiding citizens, no matter where they're born, free of having to prove the innocence in this state, and if law enforcement starts acting otherwise, I believe law enforcement will be running in violation in federal and state constitutions."
Sorrell was referring to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld parts of and overturned other parts of a controversial Arizona immigration law. The part that was upheld allows state law enforcement officers to ask for identification from individuals suspected of being in the country illegally.
However, Vermont's Constitution prohibits state officials from doing the same, saying they must have a warrant or probable cause to believe a crime is committed before having the right to seize or search "papers."
The next big issue for Vermont, at least as far as criminal justice is concerned, is the continuing effort to combat identity theft, said Sorrell, who takes credit for convincing the legislature to appropriate additional funds so law enforcement agencies can better combat the downloading and sharing of child pornography. The attorney general's office is also concerned with how Vermonters engage in commerce and social media on the Internet.
“I want Vermonters to take full advantage of the benefits of the online world, but be better aware and informed of the short comings, both criminal and loss of privacy wise,” said Sorrell. 
Sorrell said his office would be investigating the death of 39-year-old Macadam Mason, the man who died after police shot him with a taser gun. Sorrell said that a few years ago he investigated the use of tasers by Brattleboro Police officers in two incidents and found fault with taser use. A report about the benefits and risks of tasers is on the attorney general’s website.
“They are a lethal weapon," Sorrell said. “They should only be used by well-trained police personnel in accordance with adopted policies of that particular police department, setting forth clearly the appropriate usages of tasers and what would be inappropriate.”
Departments should review each time a police officer uses his or her taser, similar to how police investigate the use of firearms, said Sorrell. He called tasers an effective tool for law enforcement officers. 
“I think they saved a lot of injuries and deaths in Vermont when used appropriately over the years,” said Sorrell. “I am in favor of their use by properly trained officers operating under thorough policies.”
Sorrell is not a fan of capital punishment. He said the state has increased penalties and now has life without parole as a possible sentence. The state also has presumptive minimum sentences for first-degree murder of no less than 35 years. Cases for capital punishment, said Sorrell, takes years and millions of dollars in legal fees.
“I just don’t think it’s worth while, nor do I think it’s a huge deterrent given the fact we do have the availability of life without parole, which has been imposed a number of times in Vermont for some of our most serious murder cases and ones that have been prosecuted by my office,” said Sorrell. Sorrell agreed there is a significant cost to incarcerate someone for life. “I actually think it is probably more expensive to go through several years of litigation in a death penalty case than incarcerate someone for life without parole.”
Laws that give the legislature and the public service board a say in the future operation of Vermont Yankee should be up held, said Sorrell. “That’s what I’m trying to do in the courts." Sorrel said that Entergy, owner of Vermont Yankee, had agreed in writing not to challenge Vermont’s laws, but the company broke that promise. “We’re now on appeal of a judge’s decision in the Federal Appeals Court in New York City.”
There’s also a proceeding going on before the Vermont Public Service Board about issuing a certificate of public good for the relicensing of Vermont Yankee, said Sorrell, who is concerned about Entergy’s proposal to spinoff ownership of Vermont Yankee as well as other nuclear power plants to another company. 
Sorrell said if he were a legislator he would vote to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession, but as the chief law enforcement officer, he is reluctant to encourage the decriminalization to the extent it might lead Vermonters to think marijuana is legal, when it would remain illegal under federal law.
Sorrell said he was disappointed the legislature didn’t give the state police more ready access to the data base that would allow investigators to more readily and efficiently find doctor shopping examples. Police can get the same information, but have to drive to each pharmacy. 
The misuse of prescription drugs and distribution and use of harmful street drugs, like cocaine and hereon, are big problems in the state, said Sorrell. He said that out of state criminal gangs are involved in drug trafficking in the state.
Sorrell said he’s proud of his record and he brought a lot of money into the state. One example is from the tobacco industry from a lawsuit he filed. From the case, Vermont will continue to receive more than $25 million a year, every year. Sorrell is also proud about environmental protection cases including a successful defense in federal court for reduced automobile emissions.
Sorrell also takes credit for returning money to Vermonters pockets from companies violating consumer protection statutes.

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