Category Archives: Law

And Now a Word From Vermont’s #1 QAnon Ambulance Chaser

Hello, friends. I’m Deb Bucknam. You may know me as the spectacularly unsuccessful Republican candidate for Attorney General in 2016, or from my years of service as an officer of the Vermont Republican Party.

That may make you think I’m mainstream, but let me assure you I’m anything but. I stand ready to legally represent any member of the far right who’s been oppressed, victimized or silenced by the deep state, the United Nations or the insidious Antifa movement.

That’s right. Call me if your violent threats have cost you your job, or if you’ve been targeted for refusing to wear a mask, or if you’ve been barred from carrying your firearm into any space, or if a simple patriotic act like storming the U.S. Capitol has triggered a deeply unfair prosecution. I WILL BE YOUR ADVOCATE!

Just look at my track record. I represented a Rutland gym owner whose business was ruthlessly shut down by state officials. I went to court on behalf of five brave Vermonters who sought to block the mailing of ballots to every registered voter in Vermont. And I stood by the side of a Newport mail shop owner as the state tried to close him down for refusing to make customers and staffers wear masks.

Now, I may have lost every single case. But I promise to have your back, no matter how ridiculous or imaginary your cause.

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Tightening Up the Hate Crime Law

I’ve written previously about Vermont’s inability to protect targets of hate crimes, especially those in public office. People of color, including former state rep Kiah Morris, have been hounded out of elective office — and have gotten no support or protection from law enforcement or prosecutors. Women in public life, who are frequently targets of harassment, also have to carry on with no recourse in the law. Which means, hey, the harassers win!

Turns out, somebody’s trying to do something about that. The House Judiciary Committee is working on a revision to Vermont’s hate crime law aimed at allowing more prosecutions while preserving Constitutional rights. More on this after a brief digression.

This is what they call a “committee bill,” meaning it’s drafted by a committee rather than an individual legislator. Coincidentally enough, VTDigger’s Kit Norton covered the phenomenon in last night’s episode of “Final Reading,” Digger’s free-subscription daily summary of legislative activity.

Unlike an ordinary piece of legislation, which is formally introduced by a member of the House or Senate, given a bill number and referred to a legislative panel for discussion, a committee bill is assembled, piece by piece, within a — you guessed it — committee. 

It lacks a bill number and isn’t easily found on the Legislature’s website. It can evolve quickly and quietly, under the radar, until it springs from committee, fully formed, onto the House or Senate floor. 

Norton writes that, for whatever reason, there are lots of these bills in the Legislature this year. He’s right; committee bills don’t show up in the Legislature’s searchable list of introduced bills. You have to go to the committee’s website and search around.

Back to the matter at hand. Apparently House Judiciary has been low-key working on this, in consultation with the Attorney General’s office. I’m glad to hear that, because I’ve specifically attacked T.J. Donovan for failing to prosecute hate crimes. This means Donovan recognizes the need for a change in the law. On Wednesday morning, the committee began hearing testimony on the bill. Testimony that showed how difficult a balancing act this legislation will be.

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The Collar and the Badge

In recent days, we’ve seen defensive protestations from two separate former Burlington police chiefs. The above comes from former chief and now rebranded 21st Century policing expert Brandon del Pozo. The second is in the resignation announcement of Jennifer Morrison, who tied her departure to the too-tough oversight by the busybodies on City Council.

In some ways I can sympathize. Burlington is a tough city for policing, never more so than right now. Progressives on City Council and community advocates often go over the top in their demands and their tactics. And as del Pozo noted in another tweet, many of the top cops who’ve resigned or been forced out across the country are among the more progressive members of that breed. To be sure, life is easier for the George Merkels and Paul Doucettes of the world, who rule the roost in communities that let the cops have their way.

For purposes of this blogpost, I am not questioning the good intentions of del Pozo or Morrison. But here’s the problem: Much like the Roman Catholic Church, the policing profession has forfeited the benefit of the doubt. There are far too many bad apples — and you know the real truth about bad apples is that unless they are removed, they spoil the barrel. In both professions, the bad apples have been allowed to remain.

The vast majority of Catholic priests and, for the sake of argument, top Church administrators operate faithfully, with good intentions. But the bad apples were protected, and the Church continues to pay a price. Who can take the Church seriously as a moral arbiter?

Winning back the lost trust will take several decades of good behavior and strict adherence to moral principles and the law. The same is now true of the policing profession — except they are still racking up fresh deficits.

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When Pigs Fly

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of ensuing protests, Vermont’s political leadership is united in calling for criminal justice reform.

They are also united in minimizing expectations for actual, y’know, results.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Law enforcement has always gotten a full, respectful, sometimes dreamy-eyed reception in legislative committees. Police chiefs, sheriffs and state’s attorneys always wield strong influence when it comes to any issue that touches on their work, from criminal justice to substance abuse to cannabis to the deadly perils of Happy Hour.

(This post concerns our top Democratic and Progressive leaders, not Republican Gov. Phil Scott. He has made all the right noises, and I’m sure he will endorse modest reforms. But the expectations ought to be higher for the D’s and P’s.)

No surprise then, that Dem/Prog Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and Dem House Speaker Mitzi Johnson have already put the kibosh on any talk of cutting the Vermont State Police budget. Ashe, who believes it’s time for him to move up the ladder to the lieutenant governorship, offered this in lieu of leadership: “It’s one thing to say that, to communicate as part of this national discussion, but how you actually implement such a proposal is not a one size fits all.”

Spoken like a politician fleeing a hot-button issue.

Johnson asserted that Vermont has “a very different law enforcement structure than a lot of other states,” so those notorious one-size-fits-all solutions just won’t work here.

Well, I’d like to know more about how Vermont’s structure of state police, county sheriffs and municipal police departments, whose officers are armed with lethal weapons and who are primarily responsible for responding to a variety of public safety situations, is so dramatically different from the police structure elsewhere.

And whose officers have a track record of disproportionately stopping or arresting people of color and of using deadly force in dealing with the mentally ill.

Eh, I don’t think out “structure” is so different. Johnson is simply making another meaningless callout to Vermont exceptionalism.

As for Attorney General T.J. Donovan, he has tweeted that America’s criminal justice system is “broken,” and the time to fix it is “now.” But his proposed fixes are from the lipstick-on-a-pig bargain bin.

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Keep the ball

Yesterday on Twitter…

This is absolutely bloody brilliant. And I feel absolutely certain that Congressional Democrats don’t have the stomach to pull it off.

Let’s recap the situation as of midday, Tuesday December 17, 2019. The House of Representatives is due to vote sometime this week on articles of impeachment for That Most Impeachable Of Presidents, Donald Trump. In the normal course of events, the action would move to the Senate for a trial — and an acquittal, thanks to the LALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU Republican majority.

Where Lindsey Graham has promised not to listen to the evidence, thus pre-disavowing his duty as a juror. And where Majority Leader “Moscow” Mitch McConnell has openly acknowledged he’s conniving with Trump on trial rules and staging.

The game is fixed. So why play along?

The House should approve impeachment, and then sit on it. Don’t convey the articles to the Senate. There’s nothing that mandates immediate conveyance, and a lot of good arguments for playing keep-away.

For starters, the impeachment process has been the first time in living memory that the Dems have managed to wrest the spotlight away from whatever Trump is tweeting or helicopter-adjacent shouting. They’ve controlled the narrative, and will continue to do so this week.

After that, it’s in Republican hands once again — if the House gives it over to the Senate. The Dems would go back to playing defense.

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Donovan Knew

The Vanishing Wunderkind

If there was any doubt about whether Attorney General T.J. Donovan might run for governor in 2020, he has just eliminated it.

Not by making an announcement, but by making it all but impossible to get the Democratic nomination. The guy’s so radioactive right now, he ought to just lay low for at least two more years.

Because it turns out he played a major role in concealing the scandal at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. We know this thanks to Seven Days‘ Paul Heintz, who has done the near-impossible. He uncovered a major scandal in state government — and then, one week later, he has substantially advanced the story, at a time when every media outlet in Vermont is pursuing this thing. Or should be.

Today’s piece reveals that pretty much everyone in state government knew about widespread abuse at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility long before it became public, including officials who loudly expressed their horror and astonishment that there were problems at the prison.

Including, most notably for our purposes, T.J. Donovan, who has known about systematic problems at the prison for two and a half years.

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Donovan mulls outside monitor for women’s prison

The scandal-plagued Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility may need an independent monitor to provide an outside view of its management. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan floated the idea Monday, in an interview from the meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington.

A report in last week’s Seven Days outlined a years-long pattern of sexual assault and other misbehavior at Vermont’s only women’s prison — and a pattern of covering up or ignoring those abuses. Since then, Gov. Phil Scott has ordered Human Services Secretary Mike Smith to launch an investigation, Smith has assumed managerial control of the prison and House Democrats plan to conduct hearings on the scandal as soon as the new legislative session begins next month.

Donovan said the idea of an independent monitor arose Monday in a side conversation at the NAAG meeting. “This has been done at the federal level with troubled prisons,” Donovan said. “Usually, there’s a list of criteria for compliance that the independent party would monitor.” Donovan isn’t ready to advocate for the move, but he noted that “we may need some sort of independent third party.”

Donovan has not launched his own investigation of the prison; instead, he is assisting with Smith’s probe. There’s also a criminal investigation underway by the Vermont State Police. Donovan defended his decision to stay in a supporting role for now.

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On the women’s prison scandal

First of all, full credit to Paul Heintz and the Seven Days team for producing a tremendously impactful piece of reporting. You know you’ve hit the mark when you force every political figure in Vermont to stop in their tracks and take action to investigate a scandal.

And scandal it is. An epidemic of sexual assault involving guards and inmates at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, Vermont’s only women’s prison:

“It’s an epidemic at this facility,” said one longtime officer who claims to have faced retaliation for speaking out against it.

“The [officers] lie, have sex with inmates, assault people and have each other’s backs to ensure that nobody finds out,” said Melissa Gaboury, who was released from the prison last week. “They also retaliate against any inmate for speaking about anything.”

Not good. Not good at all. Especially in a time when the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) has mandated procedures for curbing sexual assault behind bars. And when the state’s corrections department has supposedly complied with the law.

Yeah, maybe not.

If half the stuff in Heintz’s story, and his follow-up piece, is true, then this is a full-on scandal that ought to rock the state’s corrections system to its core. People should be fired. People should be brought up on criminal charges. And not just guards on the front lines, but top officials who must have been complicit in cover-ups and creating (or permitting) a culture of denial and suppression.

The cherry on this shit sundae: Daniel Zorzi, a corrections officer who was a known drug abuser, and who trafficked in and shared drugs with inmates, was somehow named the DOC’s 2018 shift supervisor of the year. Here he is, embarrassingly enough, posing with then-corrections commissioner Lisa Menard and then-human services secretary Al Gobeille.

Oopsie.
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When a politician says “It’s not political,” you can bet your ass it’s political

On Thursday, Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan sided with Republican Governor Phil Scott against Democratic Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George in a high-profile murder case. And he insisted, naturally, that his decision had nothing to do with politics.

OK, before we get to the merits of his argument, let’s make one thing clear. It’s political. Whether Donovan wanted it to be or not — whether politics entered into his thinking or not — his decision indisputably has political ramifications.

In May, George dismissed charges against Aita Gurung for the 2017 murder of his wife because George decided she wouldn’t be able to rebut Gurung’s insanity defense. (A court-hired expert and a prosecution expert had both concluded that Gurung was insane at the time of the fatal attack.) It was one of three high-profile dismissals by George on the same day. Later, Scott asked Donovan to review the three cases.

Donovan was George’s predecessor in Chittenden County. His decision in the Gurung case clearly casts doubt on her judgment because he has just overruled her judgment. His protestations of “utmost respect” for George ring hollow.

In a media scrum after Gurung’s re-arraignment Friday, Donovan presented a bunch of inadequate and contradictory explanations. He sounded like he was grasping at straws.

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About that vacancy on the state supreme court

Last week, longtime Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley announced he will retire at the end of his term, next March. There followed the predictable encomiums to his service and legal mind and his staunch liberalism, notably expressed in the 1999 civil unions decision.

You know the first thing that crossed my mind?

Who gets to fill the vacancy: Peter Shumlin or his successor?

Yeah, I immediately went to the politics. Vermont Political Observer through and through. The stakes aren’t nearly as high as for the U.S. Supreme Court, but there are definitely stakes. Presumably Phil Scott and Sue Minter would have different qualifications in mind if they got to name one of the Court’s five Justices.

I don’t know for sure; no one in the media has seen fit to inquire about the candidates’ judicial philosophy and their views of Vermont jurisprudence.

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