Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, right, and his challenger in the Democratic Party primary, TJ Donovan, wait for their television debate to begin on Wednesday in South Burlington.
SOUTH BURLINGTON — Attorney General William Sorrell found himself playing defense in a taped debate Wednesday with Democratic primary challenger TJ Donovan, to be aired in two parts beginning this weekend.
Donovan, the Chittenden County state’s attorney who is making a rare bid to unseat an incumbent in his own political party, bashed Sorrell’s job performance, particularly before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 when Vermont lost a campaign finance case.
“Let me be very clear,” Donovan said. “I will not handle any case at the United States Supreme Court. The practice at the United States Supreme Court is a select practice of law. Very few lawyers do it. Those who do it are experts. We should not dabble in arguing at the United States Supreme Court, nor should we dabble in these complex constitutional issues.”
Sorrell defended his performance, noting that his office won at the federal district court and appeals court levels. When the case got before the Supreme Court, he said, “We ran into the Citizens United court and lost.”
The informal, hour-long debate was taped at television station WCAX as part of a two-part “You Can Quote Me” show, which the station will broadcast over the next two Sundays. WCAX host Kristin Carlson and Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna posed the questions.
The winner of the Aug. 28 primary will face Republican Jack McMullen in the November general election.
Donovan argued it was time for a change after Sorrell’s 15 years in the attorney general’s office. But Sorrell said his experience makes him best equipped to carry out the duties of the office.
Sorrell noted that he has helped advise lawmakers on passing new campaign finance disclosure laws that will pass constitutional muster in light of the recent Supreme Court decisions. Most of the justices who decided the 2006 Vermont case were on the court four years later, when it decided that corporations could not be limited in their efforts to influence elections. The ruling has stirred national debate.
Sorrell said more work remains, and pointed to a previously announced initiative to crack down on child pornography.
He also defended his record of prosecuting misconduct by police against occasional criticism in the past that he wasn’t tough enough on officers who break the law.
“No prosecutor in Vermont history has prosecuted more police officers for on- and off-duty conduct than I,” Sorrell said.
Both Sorrell and Donovan said they oppose the death penalty, but Sorrell expressed no regret and Donovan no disagreement with the decision to have the federal, rather than state courts try former Randolph resident Michael Jacques in the 2008 rape and killing of his 12-year-old niece, Brooke Bennett.
A federal conviction could carry the death penalty. Vermont does not have capital punishment.
Both men withheld judgment on a confrontation last weekend in which protesters at a meeting of New England governors and eastern Canadian provincial premiers said Burlington police used excessive force when the crowd grew unruly.
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