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August 15, 2013

In VY Loss, Sorrell Sees Political Redemption — and Jabs Donovan

Sorrell announceMoved on from last summer's Democratic primary for attorney general?

Bill Sorrell hasn't.

After a federal appellate court ruled against the state Wednesday in its bid to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, we reached out to Attorney General Sorrell for comment. His office, with the help of outside counsel, argued the case.

In a voicemail message in response to our call, Sorrell said he was "disappointed" that the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court judge that the state improperly considered radiological safety when it tried to close the plant. 

But Sorrell clearly wanted to focus on the positive.

In the same decision, the court reversed an earlier finding that the state violated Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Corp.'s constitutional rights by demanding lower energy prices. The court's reversal means that Vermont won't have to pay Entergy's considerable — and rapidly growing — legal bills.

That's a signficant victory, at least in Sorrell's eyes.

"We're very happy we didn't violate Entergy's constitutional rights, so consequently we're not on the hook for something in excess — and potentially well in excess — of $5 million of attorneys' fees for them," Sorrell said in the message.

And then the AG said something surprising: "For those who questioned the wisdom of taking the appeal to the 2nd Circuit, that was a great decision because we saved millions of dollars on the constitutional issues."

To whom was Sorrell referring?

We were going to ask that when we called him back later Wednesday. But before we could, Sorrell brought it up again — totally unprompted — and made clear what he meant.

"Those who questioned taking the appeal, including, allegedly, my primary opponent, through the lens now that appeal was worthwhile," Sorrell said.

Oh, snap. Seems that nearly a year after barely defeating Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, the 16-year incumbent still feels the need to swipe at his erstwhile opponent.

Why he'd do that isn't exactly clear. Keep in mind that it was Sorrell's original Vermont Yankee loss in federal district court last January that provided Donovan the opening to challenge him in the first place. Now that Sorrell's lost again, why's he going out of his way to bring up politics? And more to the point, why's he goading Donovan, who's made it clear he's considering a rematch?

For now, at least, Donovan doesn't appear to be taking the bait. 

"I want to give the attorney general the time and space to make the best decision for the state of Vermont," Donovan said Wednesday night, referring to whether Sorrell should appeal further to the U.S. Supreme Court. "This is not about us. This is about the state of Vermont. It's a serious case." 

Sorrell's jab is stranger still when you consider that his charge isn't exactly grounded in reality. 

Last summer, Sorrell and his allies argued that the incumbent AG would fight harder than Donovan to shut down Vermont Yankee. They repeatedly insinuated that Donovan would not have appealed the district court decision in favor of Entergy. 

Their evidence? This "vt.Buzz" blog post written in June by the Burlington Free Press' Terri Hallenbeck:

Donovan, the challenger, is making hay of the big cases Sorrell has lost, including Vermont Yankee. In an interview last week, Donovan said he though [sic] Vermont Yankee should shut down but indicated he didn’t think appealing the case was the best route.

Later that day, Hallenbeck penned a new post after Donovan "took issue with [her] characterization of his position on Vermont Yankee."

To clariify [sic], Donovan said he would not second guess Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s decision to appeal the Vermont Yankee case. “I can’t second guess it because it’s not my case,” he said. “It’s tough to make a legal argument if it’s not your case.”

When Seven Days spoke with Donovan shortly after those blog posts were published, he reiterated that he thought Hallenbeck had misunderstood him.

"My answer was, which I've been consistent on, is I'm not going to second-guess Bill Sorrell's opinion," Donovan said at the time. "I think that I would have appealed, too, given what's at stake, but I want to be clear that I do not want to second-guess Bill's decision to appeal and I'm not going to second-guess his decision to appeal."

On Wednesday night, Donovan sounded a similar note.

"I supported the appeal. I think Vermont Yankee should be shut down," he said. "I was consistent throughout the campaign."

Consistent or not, Sorrell clearly hasn't gotten over the race — nor that line of attack, however unfounded it may be.

"Who knows why they questioned the wisdom of filing the appeal and pursuing the appeal," Sorrell said Wednesday. "I'll leave it to them to explain."

As for Wednesday's ruling, Sorrell is ready to chalk up his loss as a win. He said that the state spent "a little under a million dollars" defending itself through the 2nd Circuit appeal, whereas Entergy probably spent "at least six million total," he estimated.

"Obviously that's real money, but if you've got to pay a million to save six million, that's a pretty good day at work," he said.

Does Sorrell think the ruling will hurt him politically?

Not so much.

"This decision today, if anything, reinforces me in the view that my office has done very good work in trying to, one, uphold Vermont's laws," Sorrell said, "And, two, save Vermont taxpayers from having to pay millions of dollars."

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