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Vermont’s governor sued over ‘interim’ education commissioner appointment

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(The Center Square) — A pair of Democratic senators are suing Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott over his decision to appoint an education commissioner whose nomination was rejected by lawmakers.

The lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court, alleges that Scott violated the state Constitution when he flexed his executive authority in May to appoint Zoie Saunders as the Interim head of the Vermont Agency of Education after the state Senate voted 19-9 against her nomination.

One of the litigants, state Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky, said the lawsuit challenges Scott’s decision to unilaterally reappoint Saunders despite the Senate’s rejection of her confirmation.

“What may seem like a complicated legal issue is actually quite simple,” the Chittenden Central Democrat said in a statement. “The governor can’t strip away the power granted to the senate by both the Vermont Constitution and state law. But by disregarding our unambiguous decision to reject his appointment for Secretary of Education, he did exactly that.”

In a statement to news outlets, a Scott spokesperson dismissed the lawsuit as a partisan move aimed at diverting public attention away from the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s actions, including its recent approval of a 14% property tax increase.

“This is another example of legislators focusing more on partisan political maneuvering than the hard work to help schools, kids and taxpayers,” the governor’s office said. “Fortunately for Vermonters, Interim Secretary Saunders, her team at the Agency, and the Governor will continue to focus on helping schools navigate the desperate need to stabilize the system and improve outcomes for kids.

Saunders, who most recently worked for Broward County schools in Florida, was tapped by Scott to replace Dan French, who stepped down from the job last year.

Shortly after her nomination, the Vermont Progressive Party issued a blistering attack on her background in for-profit charter schools, which the party said raises “serious doubts about her suitability for the role.”

Scott defended her nomination and accused Democrats of “cherry picking her résumé” to spread misinformation about her professional background and attack her character.

After the Senate rejected her confirmation in May, Scott said he was using his executive powers to appoint her as the ‘interim’ education commissioner. At the time, he praised Democratic lawmakers who supported her confirmation, saying he “knows all too well how difficult it can be to stand up to the most partisan political activists in one’s party base to do what’s right.”

In her statement, Vyhovsky said the legal challenge isn’t about Scott’s decision to nominate Saunders, the work she’s done in the past, or partisan politics.

“It’s about the governor’s decision to overrule the Senate and make that appointment without our legally required consent,” she said. “It’s about making case law that tells any governor who comes after Scott that Vermont enforces the separation of powers.”

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