Lawyer in Chief

Sorrell is our state’s longest-serving attorney general

by Will Lindner

sorrellSince his appointment as the state’s 25th attorney general in 1997, William H. Sorrell has navigated the shoals of rapidly changing shifts in culture.

Appointed by Gov. Howard Dean in 1997 to succeed Jeffrey Amestoy, who had become chief justice of the state Supreme Court, William H. Sorrell is Vermont’s 25th attorney general and, at 17 years, the longest-serving AG in the state’s history. His tenure has coincided with a cultural evolution that, while manifest elsewhere in the United States, has been particularly noticeable in Vermont.

During this period the state has accepted marriage equality and rejected nuclear power; it has grown wary of the “large” — powerful corporations, political financiers — and protective of the “small” — individuals’ rights to a safe environment and consumer protections.

Sorrell and his staff have been caught up in the momentum — for the most part, willingly. The Legislature has foisted some of its battles off on him: an unsuccessful attempt to defend campaign-finance reform; a lawsuit brought by Entergy Corp. contesting the Legislature’s authority to discontinue Vermont Yankee’s operating license; and, as of the just-completed 2014 legislative session, a new GMO-labeling law certain to trigger a court challenge by, shall we say, Big Food.

But Sorrell has also chosen his own fights. He and his team scored a major victory over the tobacco industry; successfully defended the so-called California emissions standards for automobiles (the federal appeals court with jurisdiction in California was too busy to take the case); and last year set “patent trolls” back on their heels, suing a Texas company under Vermont’s consumer-protection laws.

“Patent trolls” purchase other people’s patents, and then harangue small businesses and organizations for alleged violations,” Sorrell says. “Rather than engaging unaffordable legal fees, the recipients of these ever-more-threatening letters are apt to pay up.

“We alleged in our complaint that they had sent those letters to 75 small businesses and nonprofits in the state, that they had made a number of untrue statements, and hadn’t done diligence before threatening patent infringements.” Although a trial is still pending, Sorrell’s action inspired the Vermont Legislature to enact the nation’s first “anti–patent trolling law.” Other states are jumping aboard.

Perhaps no cultural shift has been as pronounced as Vermont’s gradual legitimization of same-gender marriage equality. While finishing up as administration secretary in the waning weeks of the 1997 legislative session, Sorrell was contacted by attorneys representing same-sex couples who planned to sue their towns of residence for refusing to issue marriage licenses. (Actually, they couldn’t, because Vermont’s pertinent statute expressed a traditional definition of marriage.)

Although the state had not yet been named in the lawsuit (it was later), Sorrell says the attorneys wanted to make sure that as AG he would defend the statute. The fear was that one of the towns might hire a lawyer who would instigate a blistering cultural crusade against gay rights. “They told me, ‘We know that wouldn’t be the nature of the litigation if you defend the statute.’”

When the time came, Sorrell indeed defended the statute’s constitutionality — apparently convincingly, because the state Supreme Court did not overturn the law. It did, however, identify a legal issue neither side had raised, pointing out that all Vermonters had rights to the benefits and protections afforded by marriage. Yet the justices withheld their ruling, giving the Legislature an opportunity to remedy that problem, which it did the following year by inventing civil unions. While there was political fallout from that law, Sorrell remains deeply respectful of the court’s approach.

“Had the Supreme Court just handed down a ruling that ‘As of tomorrow gays can marry’ or something of that nature,” he reflects, “I think we might well have seen violence in this state.”

And Sorrell’s personal feelings?

“My kids [McKenzie Esther Sorrell, now 26, and Thomas William Sorrell, 25] were, maybe, 7 and 8, and we had never really talked about gay issues. They asked, and I said, ‘Well, these people want to be able to be married and they can’t under current law.’ And one of the kids said, ‘I don’t understand that, Dad. They’re people like everybody else.’”

Recounting the story, Sorrell nods and smiles, obviously proud of his children. “I told them, ‘Yes. Yes they are.’”

“Passion is the answer,” says Ernie Pomerleau, reflecting upon why Bill Sorrell has stuck it out in a high-pressure, high-profile office for so long. The president and CEO of Burlington-based Pomerleau Real Estate has known Sorrell since childhood. “Bill sees his job as a public servant — that he can change things for the community and the state in a proactive way. And he’s basically been given a pass in all but a few elections.”

Indeed, Sorrell has won his eight general election campaigns with an average of 68 percent of the vote, his only close call coming in the 2012 Democratic primary, when he nudged past challenger T.J. Donovan by 1.7 percent.

Not that Sorrell hasn’t had his adversaries. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which defines itself as a defender of free enterprise and limited government, once named him “The Nation’s Sixth-Worst Attorney General.” Pomerleau, too, concedes that his respect for his former high school classmate “doesn’t mean I agree a hundred percent with all he’s done. But he’s a good guy and works hard and is devoted to the state.”

Perhaps there is a passion gene.

Sorrell’s mother, Esther (who, like his father, Thomas William Sorrell, was a Burlington native), was a pioneering female state senator and an ardent political activist, lauded by some as “the mother of the Democratic Party in Vermont.” Sorrell jokes that “I was probably in high school before I realized that the dining room table was for meals. I thought it was to hold voter checklists.” Her energy was infectious, he remembers.

Sorrell’s father served with both the Burlington and Colchester police departments and as a U.S. marshal. As Vermont’s chief law-enforcement officer and an elected statewide official, Sorrell savors the thought that his career is a synthesis of his parents’ callings.

Sorrell was a student athlete at Rice Memorial High School. Next came Notre Dame University, followed by Cornell Law School. Graduating in 1974, he wrestled with the decision of what to do next.

“Then I thought, ‘Hey, you love Vermont, you love your family, you love the mountains, you love the seasons, you love the lake. So go back home! Don’t apologize for that!’ And I never really looked back.”

He began a journey through public and private legal practice in which his friendships within Burlington’s professional circles unquestionably played a role. These included a brief stint as an assistant city attorney, two years as a deputy state’s attorney for Chittenden County, and 11 years in private practice with McNeil, Murray & Sorrell.

Sorrell also began fielding what he laughingly refers to as “Calls From the Governor!” In 1977, he was a deputy state’s attorney when Gov. Richard Snelling asked him to fill the vacancy left by Sorrell’s boss’s departure for private practice. He served for a year, then followed his boss to become a partner in the same firm.

Eleven years later came another call, and a weightier decision.

“Bill, I’d like you to do a stint of public service and take the [once again vacant] state’s attorney’s job.” The voice was Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s. The proposition represented a pay cut greater than half his earnings in private practice, Sorrell says. “But when the governor calls it’s hard to say no” — particularly when that governor’s mentor in politics had been Sorrell’s mother.

In 1992, another governor called. Snelling had died in office, leaving Lt. Gov. Howard Dean in charge. Sorrell became Dean’s administration secretary — “a hugely challenging job,” he explains.

Tom Torti worked under Sorrell, as personnel commissioner and commissioner of buildings and general services. “That was a clearly political job,” he says of Sorrell’s position. “But I think Democrats and Republicans would both tell you he dealt fairly and consistently, and was always on the level with folks.”

Now president and CEO of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, Torti deals with Sorrell on a range of subjects important to the business community. “He’s taken criticism for prosecuting some issues and not others,” says Torti, “but you can’t say that the cases he chooses are driven by what’s in his political interest. They are ethically driven and fact-based, taken in the best interests of justice and the people of Vermont.”

It was an intense five years for Sorrell. And, replacing Amestoy as attorney general, the pressure didn’t let up. The marriage-equality issue was waiting for him, as was tobacco litigation — a David-against-Goliath lawsuit he brought in Washington County Superior Court under Vermont’s antitrust and consumer-protection statutes. Says Sorrell, “I had religion for this one. We’re paying the medical costs for so many low- and moderate-income folks who get their insurance through the government. I was sworn in May 1, 1997, and we filed Vermont v Philip Morris et al on May 29.”

The settlement has brought hundreds of millions of dollars into the state. “And these payments are to be in perpetuity,” he emphasizes. “We’ll get another $40 million or so this year.”

Sorrell is recruited for conferences and symposiums in the U.S. and abroad, and in 2004, served a term as president of the National Association of Attorneys General. When there is spare time, he fills it with service for local causes (e.g., United Cerebral Palsy of Vermont; the Vermont Coalition of the Handicapped).

He takes advantage of Vermont’s recreational opportunities: skiing, fly fishing, and perhaps most important, bicycling. In early spring he takes his 1976 Porsche two-seater out of the garage. He maintains “a very modest camp” near Jay Peak and a long-held family camp on Lake Champlain. Married once and divorced, Sorrell is proud of his kids’ achievements. Daughter “Mackie” is in medical school in South Carolina, which is also where her brother is pursuing a Ph.D. in physical therapy.

Although outside options exist for him, Sorrell is preparing to run this fall for a ninth full term as attorney general. “I have a wonderful job,” he explains, “and I work with really smart, dedicated people on issues that affect the health and safety and well-being of Vermont and Vermonters. My mother made clear, from a very early age, that you need to give back according to your gifts.” •