Got a little news bomb in my inbox today from the Vermont ACLU. They’re announcing a federal lawsuit that, if true, frankly beggars belief.
The gist: A year and a half ago, the Brattleboro Police Department arrested cited* local resident Isabel Vinson for the “crime” of writing a Facebook post critical of a local business owner. The charge, per Vermont law: “disturbing peace by use of telephone or other electronic communications.”
*Correction: Cited, not arrested.
Is this the same law that Attorney General TJ Donovan refused to enforce against racist, anti-Semitic goon Max Misch for waging a campaign of social-media hate directed at Kiah Morris? Donovan’s reasoning was that a prosecution would run afoul of the First Amendment.
That happened in January 2019. Vinson was cited in July 2020. I guess somebody didn’t get the memo.
To sum up: You can’t be charged for repeatedly engaging in vile, threatening, racist speech, but you can be for once criticizing a business owner? Huh. I guess justice is blind.
For those just joining us, The Veepies are my occasional awards for stupidity in the public sphere. We’re still setting a brisk pace in that regard. So, here we go…
The We Gave You a Crappy Half-Apology Because We Had To, But We Really Didn’t Mean It Award goes to the Bennington Selectboard. Last month, the town reached a settlement with former state representative Kiah Morris over the police department’s actions, or inactions, regarding threats against Morris. This came after the state Human Rights Commission issued a preliminary finding that the Bennington PD had discriminated against Morris and her husband James Lawton. As part of the deal, Bennington had to issue a formal apology. And it was kind of half-assed, blame-the-victim stuff: “It is clear that Kiah, James and their family felt unsafe and unprotected by the town of Bennington.”
See, it’s not that the town did anything wrong; it’s just that Morris and her family felt unsafe. Put the onus on the victim. But wait, there’s more!
Whatever little value there was in that “apology” was completely undercut by the town’s attorney Michael Leddy, who insisted that there are “no reasonable grounds to believe” that the town was guilty of discrimination, and by Selectboard chair Jeanne Jenkins, who told VTDigger last week doesn’t believe the police department discriminated against Morris.
All they will acknowledge is that Morris “felt unsafe.” Well, Morris and her family have since relocated to Chittenden County, so problem solved, I guess?
After the jump: Empty climate rhetoric, Medicaid money for school cops, and propping up a dying industry.
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.
Huzzah, hooray, the Vermont Supreme Court has upheld the state’s ban on high-capacity firearm magazines. It’s a nice little victory for a law that will mainly be used to add another charge to an offender’s charging document.
Because hey, nobody’s going to be out there doing primary enforcement of this thing. It’ll be enforced after the fact, when someone has been arrested for some other offense.
More importantly for Vermont’s top legal eagle, the court has allowed Attorney General T.J. Donovan to press his case against notorious asshole white supremacist Max Misch.
For those with short memories, Donovan filed the firearms charge against Misch after declining to prosecute Misch for hate crimes — particularly his open harassment of former state representative Kiah Morris, who left the Legislature because she was targeted by haters.
His decision not to pursue hate crime charges triggered a backlash from those who thought Misch deserved some kind of punishment, and that Morris deserved some kind of recourse in the law. After all, the police barely lifted a finger* to investigate her complaints of harassment. Ditto the Bennington County State’s Attorney. Donovan’s decision not to prosecute Misch meant that Morris got absolutely zero protection from the criminal justice system.
*In fact, Police Chief Paul Doucette’s biggest issue with the case was that “it is damaging the reputation of the Town of Bennington, the Bennington Police Department and myself personally.” He has also accused Morris of profiting financially off her claims. Nice guy.
John Klar, a man of many talents including authorship of far-right commentaries on True North Reports, and the possessor of a notable chin, has become the first Republican candidate for governor in 2020.
Gov. Phil Scott, the Republican incumbent, has said he won’t announce his intentions until next spring. But he’s gonna run, let there be no doubt.
And he has nothing to fear from Mr. Klar, whose ideology is such a mixed bag that even the Never Scotters may have a hard time flocking to his banner. Klar’s message is roughly equal parts Ethan Allen, Arthur Laffer, and the prosperity gospel on a societal level. That is, he believes if government gets out of the way, everyone will rise out of poverty and into prosperity.
Klar calls himself and his followers “Agripublicans,” adherents to the notion that Vermont has suffered an Edenic fall from its original state of grace due to the excesses of big government and the depredations of flatlanders. In short, he’s the one true advocate for Making Vermont Great Again.
Of course, this golden age of liberty, prosperity and rugged individualism — centered on the life-giving profession of farming — is less a historic reality and more a picture postcard. But hey, a man can dream.
Return with me now to the halcyon days of 2012, when Peter Shumlin was still popular and a fresh-faced young prosecutor from up Burlington way took on the seemingly impossible task of challenging Vermont’s Eternal General Bill Sorrell in the Democratic primary. Sorrell had held the office of attorney general since 1997 and had been repeatedly re-elected, as is our general custom with statewide officeholders other than governor. Many believed that by 2012, ol’ Billy was long past his sell-by date. Others thought he wasn’t particularly qualified in the first place, but those people are obvious malcontents. (Like, for instance, the late Peter Freyne.)
Ultimately, thanks to a last-ditch infusion of cash on Sorrell’s behalf from the Democratic Attorneys General Association, TJ Donovan’s bid to unseat the incumbent came up just a little bit short. Sorrell won the primary by a puny 714 votes out of more than 41,000 cast.
But Donovan was widely hailed for his chutzpah and, more to the point, for very nearly pulling it off.
So let me ask you this. Whatever happened to that brave, headstrong young man with a limitless political future?
I mean, there’s A Guynamed TJ Donovan around. In fact, he became AG in the 2016 election, after Sorrell retired. He looks a lot like the ambitious young pol of 2012, but as time goes by, he’s acting more and more like his predecessor.