It's interesting how different U.S. states and territories fill the position of attorney general, the top law enforcement position in a state.
According to the website of the National Association of Attorneys General, "The attorney general is popularly elected in 43 states, and is appointed by the governor in five states (Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wyoming) and in the five jurisdictions of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands."
Moreover, "in Maine, the attorney general is selected by secret ballot of the legislature, and in Tennessee, by the state Supreme Court. In the District of Columbia, the mayor appoints the attorney general."
However, beginning with this November's election, the residents of the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands will elect their attorney general, according to the association. This small trend away from appointment to popular election is worth noting.
These seeming bits of political trivia are actually important to know because our own state senator, Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has proposed a bill to make the attorney general in Vermont an appointed position. Under his bill, the governor would be able to handpick the attorney general with the consent of the senate.
As our media partner VTDigger.org said in a story last week, "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."
The bill, if it became law, would go into effect in 2016. The current attorney general, Bill Sorrell, a Democrat, has been in office since 1997, has been elected to the post eight times, and announced plans to run for another two-year term in the fall.
Sen. Sears told VTDigger that the bill is not politically motivated or aimed at Mr. Sorrell.
Also chairman of the Corrections Oversight Committee, Sen. Sears said he simply wants the attorney general to function more like the defender general. He believes that an appointed attorney would have more authority over state's attorneys.
Sen. 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," he told VTDigger. "We have 14 systems of justice."
While we admire the fine work Sen. Sears does in representing Bennington and serving Vermont, we must state our opposition to this bill. If there is indeed a problem with the uniformity in the way cases are handled from county to county -- and we accept his assertion there is -- we fail to see how making the attorney general a political appointee does this. We would think the answer might be found in the type of creative and thoughtful legislation that Sen. Sears and others are proposing -- S. 295 -- to make Vermont's criminal justice system more responsive to the need for substance abuse treatment.
We agree with Attorney General Sorrell in his contention that taking away the electoral process for attorney general "arguably makes the position more political rather than less political" and "most people appreciate the independence of the office."
According to the VTDigger article, "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."
We wholeheartedly agree. Then there is the issue of basic democracy. Why take the decision of who should be Vermont's top law enforcement officer away from the people?
The example of New Jersey -- one of the states where the attorney general is appointed by the governor -- is quite timely and instructive.
According to NJ.com, the New Jersey State Senate Judiciary Committee "is strongly considering postponing its scheduled Tuesday confirmation hearing on Attorney General nominee Kevin O'Dowd amid the controversy over lane closures at the George Washington Bridge."
Mr. O'Dowd was Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's chief of staff in September when the now-infamous lane closures occurred, apparently to punish one or more Democratic politicians from Fort Lee, the community on the New Jersey side of the bridge. Email messages published last week revealed that a direct subordinate of O'Dowd's, then-Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly, knew about the lane closures before they were implemented and may have ordered a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official to carry them out, according to NJ.com.
Granted we don't know if Christie's nominee for attorney general -- his former top aide -- was caught up in this scandal in any way. And granted, moreover, that Vermont is not New Jersey.
Still, do we want to take the chance that some future governor may appoint a political operative beholden to him or her to the state's top law enforcement position?
Leave the choice of Vermont's attorney general in the hands of the people.