Two Democrats tout leadership experience in bid to become Vermont's next attorney general
Two Democrats are vying for the lead role at what’s often referred to as the “biggest law firm in Vermont.”
Attorney General TJ Donovan shocked the Vermont political world in May when he announced that he was resigning his post to take a private sector job at an online gaming company.
His unexpected departure means that voters will have to choose a new chief law enforcement officer for the state. And Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault and Donovan’s longtime chief of staff, Charity Clark, are both seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general in the next month’s primary election.
More from Vermont Public: Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan won't seek reelection
Lia Ernst, legal director at the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the next attorney general will oversee a broad range of statutory duties, including criminal prosecutions, consumer protection, investigating allegations of employment discrimination and defending the state against civil lawsuits.
But she said the attorney general also has enormous influence over broader policy debates about the future of criminal justice in Vermont.
“They have a very large platform,” Ernst said. “They play a big role in advocating for or against bills, and the Legislature tends to listen carefully to what that office has to say."
Charity Clark said the seeds of her legal career might have started planting in 1991.
“I was very struck by the Anita Hill hearing,” Clark said at a recent interview at her home in Williston.
Clark was a high school student in southern Vermont at the time. And Hill was testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about alleged sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
“It felt to me like she was very alone to not have any women on the committee,” Clark recalled. “It really was — just visually was very striking. And knowing that she was, in my teenage mind, this beautiful and glamorous lawyer, it really stayed with me.”
So it was a full-circle moment, Clark said, when a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, including the justice against whom Hill testified, issued a decision overturning Roe v. Wade last month.
“I started thinking, ‘What can we do at the AG’s office?’ And started brainstorming,” Clark said.
More from Vermont Public: Vermont’s 2022 primary election: Here’s what you need to know
The view from inside the attorney general’s office is one that Clark knows well. She served in the office for eight years, including four as chief of staff under former Attorney General TJ Donovan, before leaving her position in May.
Three days after the Dobbs decision landed, Clark outlined a multi-pronged response to the ruling. Her plan would protect people who come to Vermont to receive abortion services, and also shield abortion providers in Vermont from extradition to states that outlaw abortion.
Several Vermont lawmakers are already drafting legislation based on her proposals.
“I have really good relationships with legislators because I oversaw the legislative agenda of the attorney general’s office for the past four years,” Clark said.
Shortly after Clark’s former boss announced in May that he would be stepping down, she announced her bid to become the first woman attorney general ever elected by Vermont voters.
She told Vermont Public that her experience supervising virtually every aspect of the office’s operations have prepared her to lead the biggest law firm in Vermont on day one of the job.
“Vermont needs a leader with the experience and the background to leverage the attorney general’s office for the best results for Vermont and Vermonters,” she said.
“I think she had a real leadership instinct in terms of setting priorities, but also was really good about listening to and learning from the lawyers who were experts on whatever the subject matter was."David Scherr, former colleague of Charity Clark
Clark said the the Dobbs decision spotlights the importance of state laws on issues such as abortion. She said another recent Supreme Court decision — one that restricts the federal government’s authority to limit greenhouse gas reductions — underscores the heightened importance of state-level action for Vermont’s next AG.
An organization called Vermont Conservation Voters thinks Clark is the right candidate to lead that effort.
“We’re really going to need leadership from state attorney generals, and kind of the legal teams who want to work on climate action to be putting their best minds forward to come up with solutions that states can implement,” said Lauren Hierl, executive director of VCV.
Hierl said Clark has been instrumental in moving the dial on climate bills in Montpelier.
“Charity has been a great, really strong and effective leader in working to ensure that some of the kind of major environmental laws, like the Global Warming Solutions Act, were legal, constitutional, effective, and ensuring that the attorney general’s office was supporting those initiatives,” Hierl said.
More from Vermont Public: How Vermont is — and isn’t — on track to reduce its share of climate-warming emissions
Clark also has the support of former colleagues like David Scherr, who worked under Clark as co-director of the Community Justice Unit at the AG’s office, and now serves as general counsel of Vermont’s Cannabis Control Board.
“I think she had a real leadership instinct in terms of setting priorities, but also was really good about listening to and learning from the lawyers who were experts on whatever the subject matter was,” Scherr said.
Scherr calls Clark a “thoughtful and energetic leader” who was willing to change course when subject-matter experts made compelling cases for a different policy direction. And when a grant that funded expungement clinics across the state ran dry, Scherr said Clark was the one that mustered the will and resources to keep the program going.
“And Charity basically stepped and said, ‘No, you know, this is a really important thing. We’ve been doing a tremendous amount of good for Vermonters all over the state, and we are going to take over the task of administering these expungement clinics,’” Scherr said.
Clark said that as attorney general, she’ll work with lawmakers and the administration to revive an expungement bill that Gov. Phil Scott vetoed earlier this year.
“That creates a compromise position so that more people can have access to expungement and sealing and not be held back by their old criminal records from getting a better job, from going on a field trip with their grandkids,” Clark said.
She said she’d also use her political influence as attorney general to advocate for issues outside the purview of the office. For instance, she says she’s witnessed how barriers to child care and paid family and medical leave have impacted women and their professional careers.
As a 46-year-old mom, Clark said she’s had to navigate those obstacles herself.
“And when we say we have a worker shortage, I’m looking around and thinking, we don’t have a worker shortage, we have a shortage in policies that support women to go back to work when they have children,” she said.
The next attorney general, Clark said, can help solve that shortage.
On a recent Friday, a 35-year-old woman was being arraigned on charges of simple assault and unlawful mischief in Vermont District Court in Barre.
The defendant is a frequent offender here in Washington County.
But the man who’s prosecuting her case today said simply convicting her won’t solve the root problem — not for Washington County, and certainly not for the defendant.
“You know, while the particular defendant’s in trouble today, she’s still part of the community,” Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said. “I don’t look at somebody … just because they’re in the defendant’s chair, look at them any differently than somebody who’s having problems in the community.”
In his four years as state’s attorney in Washington County, Thibault, 39, has become an influential advocate for criminal justice reform.
Offenders need to be held accountable for their misdeeds, Thibault said. But he said courts can offer a more profound contribution to public safety and quality of life when they engage in what he calls “soft social work.”
“And having the eyes and presence to appreciate the whole person, and understand that the criminal justice system may play some part in correcting past action, but it’s probably not the only thing that’s going to be needed to ensure someone’s success in the future,” he said.
As a member of the Vermont Sentencing Commission, Thibault has helped galvanize support for reclassifying low-level drug offenses. He’s expanded use of treatment courts in Washington County and evolved the way the office handles young offenders. And he’s also pushed for the creation of more therapeutic, non-correctional settings for mentally ill offenders.
As attorney general, Thibault said he could accelerate that work.
“I view that as being one of the secret weapons of the attorney general’s office, is the substantial influence on policy and informal rulemaking that goes on to bolster and support changes within the justice system,” Thibault said.
"He gives me hope that there is definitely a next generation of public servants who have all the right stuff to be able to carry us through these challenging times.”Former Assistant Attorney General Linda Purdy
Thibault’s approach to criminal justice has won him the endorsement of progressive groups like Rights and Democracy, where Dan Fingas serves as Vermont politics director.
“I mean, we’ve really found that he’s so willing to enter conversations about tough issues with an open mind and listen, and hear people’s lived experiences and learn from them,” Fingas said.
Fingas said Rights and Democracy first met Thibault when he was advocating for reforms to Vermont’s education financing system. Thibault, who chairs the Cabot School Board, helped lead a coalition that successfully pushed for legislation that could boost financial resources to low-income districts, and districts with high percentages of kids who are English language learners.
Fingas said Rights and Democracy has been especially impressed with Thibault’s approach to police accountability.
“I’ve seen him talk to police chiefs and others about police accountability in ways where he’s looking for common ground, and so that we can actually pass and not just discuss these issues,” Fingas said.
Thibault notably does not support one of Rights and Democracy’s top policy initiatives, which is the elimination of qualified immunity for police officers.
But Fingas said the way in which Thibault explained why he can’t commit to that policy reform is one of the things that make him such an appealing candidate.
“The thing with Rory is, he’s an attorney, and I think that sometimes makes him not the best at campaigning, because he’s not really willing to unequivocally endorse a lot of things, because the devil’s in the details with him,” Fingas said.
Thibault has called for stronger accountability measures for police, including a mechanism that would allow municipal bodies, state’s attorneys and the AG’s office to seek decertification of police officers.
In 2020, Thibault said he would refuse to accept criminal referrals from the Northfield police chief, for alleged dishonestly. And he’s currently prosecuting the Addison County sheriff that was charged with sexual assault earlier this month.
These sorts of acts, Thibault said, are what police accountability can look like.
“This isn’t just conceptual work,” Thibault said. “It’s work that I’ve been doing and my office has been doing right along, despite sometimes the political peril of leading on those issues.”
More from Vermont Public: How qualified immunity acts as a barrier to accountability for alleged police brutality
Thibault began his career as an Army Judge Advocate. He said that work took him across the world practicing environmental, civil, criminal, administrative and international law.
And he’s been credited with improving operations and morale at a state’s attorney’s office that was by all accounts in shambles when he took it over in 2018.
“I know that Rory has certainly been an inspirational leader as the Washington County State’s Attorney, and his staff looks up to him and is inspired by him,” said Linda Purdy, who served as an assistant attorney general before retiring from the office last year.
Purdy said morale in the attorney general’s office has suffered for several years now. She thinks Thibault is the kind of leader who can bring it back.
“A lot of Vermonters don’t realize how important the office of the attorney general is, and how important it is to have a skilled leader with integrity,” Purdy said.
At 63 years old, Purdy says she sometimes worries about the future of criminal justice in Vermont.
In Thibault, she said she’s found a skilled, experienced and thoughtful lawyer who gives her optimism.
“And he gives me hope,” Purdy said, “that there is definitely a next generation of public servants who have all the right stuff to be able to carry us through these challenging times.”
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld: