Sent a Candidate Questionnaire, Vermont Incumbents Submit Joint Response

Questionnaires “should not have been perceived as controversial or adversarial,” says the executive director of the state ACLU.

Daniel Nichanian

The ACLU of Vermont has published responses to a policy questionnaire it sent to all candidates running for Vermont’s 14 state’s attorney positions, including the 14 incumbents who are all seeking re-election this year. To meet the ACLU’s request, eight of these incumbents submitted one common response; four others submitted responses that borrowed considerably from that joint document (“without attribution,” the ACLU noted); and two didn’t respond at all.

“We asked them to provide their own responses on the record in their words to their constituents,” James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, told me. “It’s striking that not a single sitting state’s attorney has been willing to do that so far. And it’s disappointing.”

Lyall added that voter education questionnaires are a “common feature of elections in this country and a feature of democracy” and so “should not have been perceived as controversial or adversarial.” One state’s attorney complained to the local press in June that the questionnaire was not a “great first step” toward a “collaborative” partnership.

That nearly all incumbents decided to answer as a slate when these are issues on which they enjoy wide discretion also offers a window into the consensus on criminal justice shared by most Vermont prosecutors. This consensus transcends partisan lines, since the core group of coauthors includes five Democrats and three Republicans.

The collaborative document generally defends existing policies and resists calls for significant reform. “The implementation of practices that reduce incarceration are already in place,” its cosigners say when asked what practices they would develop to reduce incarceration. They express support for treatment and diversion programs for people with mental health and addiction issues, but reject the ACLU’s invitation to set a specific de-incarceration goal. They do not commit to end the use of cash bail, and when asked whether they would set “written guidelines for charging and plea bargain practices,” they write that “this question inappropriately assumes that prosecutors overcharge and unfairly pressure defendants into pleas.”

They also specify that “no,” they do not believe that—as the questionnaire put it—“prosecutorial practices contribute to racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system.”

Most of Vermont’s 14 incumbents are running unopposed this year, which is par for the course. But five races do feature challengers, some of whom returned the questionnaire. One is Elizabeth Betsy Anderson, a Republican running in Lamoille County whose questionnaire responses reject the premise that the incarceration rate is too high or that cash bail should be scaled back. Another is Arnie Gottlieb, who is by contrast mounting a reform-oriented challenge to Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage in the August 14 Democratic primary.