by Rob Roper
Now we know where Attorney General Sorrell gets his name – Bill. He’s racked up a mighty big one defending a Vermont law (Act 80, intended to prevent data mining by drug makers) all the way to the Supreme Court only to have it shot down as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.
In a report released by Vermont State Auditor, Tom Salmon, the cost to Vermont taxpayers to fight the lawsuit is, so far, $634,678 in salaries and expenses. The final number could be as large as $2 million when “loser” fees are awarded by the court.
What is infuriating to many is how avoidable this loss of taxpayer dollars was. Republicans argued at the time Act 80 was passed in 2007 that the bill was likely to be struck down. The unconstitutionality of the law was so obvious – New Hampshire had just lost a similar case in U.S. District Court — that Rep. David Sunderland (R-Rutland Town) inserted a provision in the legislation calling for the Auditor to monitor and report on the inevitable legal costs of defending the law.
The eye popping dollar figures in Salmon’s report, plus the $1.4 million price tag for “loser fees” alone from another Supreme Court loss in 2006 defending Vermont’s campaign finance law, prompted the Burlington Free Press to question, “Are we, as a state, so out of step with prevailing views on basic constitutional rights as to misread what the courts will allow?”
The answer is, yes. Yes, we are. Or, at least that is the case with the majority in the State House and the far left, ideologically driven activists who wield influence behind the scenes.
Paul Burns of VPIRG, authors of the previous and current campaign finance bills, stated flatly in a 2006 interview with the New York Times , “It was quite intentional on the part of the Vermont legislature to pass a law that we knew would challenge that kind of concept of money equaling speech,” They wanted a court case. They got it. Vermonters got stuck with the bill.
Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) spoke about the latest legislation passed out the senate Government Operations Committee that she sits on. “A scary thing for me is that we passed one more round of campaign finance reform.” The last two similar variations of this bill were vetoed by Governor Jim Douglas, each veto sustained by a single vote. However, Peter Shumlin has indicated he supports the legislation and would sign it into law. “But,” Flory explained, “it is yet one more time that we are going to get sued – and lose – at a cost of a couple million dollars.”
The campaign finance bill (S.20) was blasted in testimony by the Executive Director of the Vermont Democratic Party, the Vermont ACLU, and, in its earlier iterations, by James Bopp, the attorney who won the Supreme Court Case, Randall v. Sorrell, striking down Vermont’s 1997 campaign finance law. “[They] said don’t pass this, it’s unconstitutional, it doesn’t work,” said Flory, “…and [the committee] passed it. Go figure.”
Auditor Tom Salmon is worried that even more large legal fees could be on the horizon, and he is actively gathering information on the litigation expenses related to the conflict with Entergy Vermont Yankee (Acts 74 & 160). The Attorney General’s office has already budgeted $3 million for the legal fight. Salmon asked the AG’s office if the state loses the case – a distinct possibility – would Vermont taxpayers be on the hook to pay the company for lost profits? The Auditor has not received a clear answer.
“It is important for Vermonters to know the fiscal impact of decisions driven by poor judgment,” Salmon said. The $5 million wasted on these unnecessary court cases, “could support a whole lot of audits and other activities that hold people accountable and improve government performance.”