The role of the AG: advocacy or upholding the rule of law?

by Robert Maynard

The Burlington Free Press debate among the candidates for Attorney General revealed a profound difference in how the candidates for that office see the purpose of the office itself.  Republican candidate Jack McMullen argued that activism should be left up to the legislators and did not see that as a proper function of the Attorney General’s office.  The other two candidates insisted on using the office for activism.  Here is how the Burlington Free Press article covered this illuminating exchange:

McMullen accused both Sorrell and Stanak of being activists in their approach to the job, which should be the job of the Legislature, not the attorney general. “There’s plenty to do, as Bill has just outlined, in the attorney general shop without forging completely new policy ground through creative interpretations and surprising lawsuits that catch people off guard,” McMullen said. He didn’t specify examples of Sorrell doing so, but has previously criticized Sorrell for his office’s action against companies such as Cabot Creamery for their misuse of the term “Vermont made.”

He said Sorrell was a “moderate activist” and Stanak more so. Neither denied it.

Sorrell said he is an activist on issues such as establishing hazing policies, bias-free policing and obesity, where he has advocated for a tax on soda.

Stanak said the attorney general should be more of an activist, standing up for economic equality, defending Vermonters’ pensions against the actions of Wall Street banks and protecting personal privacy of Vermonters.

This little exchange should be getting more media attention, as it touches directly on the purpose of the Attorney General’s office, the role of government and the nature of justice itself.  Justice is traditionally represented in the American founding tradition as a blind lady holding a scale.  This has led to the saying that “justice is blind”.  The notion that government would take an activist role and advocate for one group of citizens over another was considered a recipe for  cronyism at best and tyranny at worst.  This abandonment of our founding notion of a limited role for government is rampant among Vermont’s political class and advocacy groups, who are cheered on by the state’s media.  In a recent Burlington Free Press article, an  assistant professor of management at the University of Vermont School of Business weighed in on the economic impact of Vermont’s “ideological politics”:

Vermont’s ideological politics are also at play. Existing research finds that political risk increases for business as more ideologically-motivated interest groups oppose them. Groups with ideological agendas have strongly felt preferences, tend to leverage public pressure effectively, and typically focus on politically salient or “hot” issues. In Vermont, anecdotal evidence suggests that businesses largely confront interest groups distrustful of the private sector and hostile to business interests. Environmentalist and anti-growth groups opposed the Circ-Williston highway proposal that IBM advocated. Walmart battled VNRC and buy-local groups for 18 years in St. Albans. Employee unions fought Fletcher Allen. VPIRG and NEC confronted Vermont Yankee and Entergy.

The problem with Vermont’s “ideological politics” is that its impact goes beyond the realm of economics.  This is seen in the push among some of Vermont’s leading politicians to favor “renewable energy” over other sources.  The policy seems harmless on the surface, but has led to blatant cronyism in practice as this commentary I posted on TNR points out.  The commentary quotes a Vermont Digger article in noting that favored renewable energy companies seem to have a different set of rules applied to them:

“Apparently this is the new rule of law in Vermont. As long as you say you are building a renewable energy project you are allowed to do whatever you want. Why aren’t we requiring developers to have enough land to build these projects so they do not trespass on neighboring properties? Who is looking out for the neighbors? It is obvious that the PSB’s and the Shumlin Administration’s support for large wind projects gives developers a sense of entitlement that leads to abusive actions,” said Energize Vermont Executive Director Lukas Snelling.

Thanks to Jack McMullen, the issue of Vermont’s “ideological politics” has been raised in the race for Attorney General.  We have had enough of activist politicians using their office for advocacy.  It is hampering our economic competitiveness and undermining the realization of true justice.  We need an Attorney General who upholds the rule of law rather than who seeks to use the office as a tool for advocacy.