By Jennifer Hersey Cleveland Staff Writer
Defense attorney David Sleigh has asked the Vermont Attorney General’s Office to cease its investigation of Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE), in regard to an allegation that she is engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
If the AG’s office refuses, it may have a lawsuit, alleging a violation of Smith’s First Amendment rights, on its hands.
Sleigh’s letter also insinuates the belief of Smith and her many supporters that the investigation is politically motivated.
“The Attorney General’s Office is not the surrogate of the politically frustrated,” Sleigh wrote.
Sleigh and Smith will hold a press conference Monday in the Cedar Creek Room of the State House in Montpelier from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Based in Danby, VCE helps individuals and municipalities navigate the complexities of the Public Service Board (PSB) process, according to Smith. In a letter, dated Jan. 19, Assistant Zachary Chen advised Smith of the investigation, which has delved into Smith’s role in five PSB dockets, and sought information from her. The AG’s office has thus far declined to name Smith’s accuser.
“We request that the Attorney General confirm in writing that it is no longer investigating Annette and her work with VCE and will not do so in the future because it recognizes as lawful Annette’s activities on behalf of individual Vermonters and in support VCE’s vision of the public interest,” Sleigh wrote.
“Even when her work is viewed most expansively, Annette does not practice law,” Sleigh wrote. “Annette promotes VCE’s economic and environmental positions involving Vermont’s energy policy. Annette’s work is classic political speech.”
Smith may help people without lawyers go up against well-represented opponents, but that assistance does not equate with the practice of law, Sleigh wrote.
Sleigh wrote, in contrast to the allegations contained in a massive production of public records related to the investigation, that Smith does not file pleadings or appear before the PSB.
“Because Annette has done nothing wrong, the Attorney General must end its investigation and forswear the threat of her prosecution,” Sleigh wrote.
“If the Attorney General refuses to do so, Annette will have no choice but to seek declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States District Court against further efforts to inhibit her lawful advocacy for Vermont’s economic growth and environmental health.
“Annette’s prosecution for the unauthorized practice of law would violate her freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Sleigh wrote. “The very investigation into Annette’s work violates her First Amendment rights since the specter of prosecution acts to exclude her from engaging in what Justice Holmes called the ‘free trade in ideas.'”
The letter also states that prosecution would also violate Smith’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The administrative order prohibiting the unlicensed practice of law identifies a criminal act but not a punishment.
“The United State Supreme Court has said that a penal law without an adequately defined penalty is void-for-vagueness,” Sleigh wrote.