Former U.S. Attorney Eric Miller On Stepping Down, His Accomplishments And What's Next

Feb 16, 2017

After nearly two years in the position, Eric Miller's final day serving as the U.S. Attorney for the district of Vermont was Feb. 10. He had announced his resignation one week prior to that in a news release issued by his office.

In the release, Miller was praised by Imam Islam Hassan, the faith leader for the Islamic Society of Vermont, and by Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras, who said he appreciated Miller's support for the Syrian refugee program in his city – a process that came to an abrupt halt as a result of President Donald Trump's immigration orders.

Miller sat down with Vermont Edition on Wednesday to discuss what he views as his accomplishments during his tenure, why he decided to resign and what may be next for him.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full interview above.

Miller: "I knew coming into the job ... that the heroin crisis in Vermont would take up an enormous amount of the office's time and energy, and that turned out to be the case. But before I arrived, the office began what it called its 'heroin initiative,' which began and then refined, I think, a really innovative approach to investigating and prosecuting heroin crime in the state of Vermont.

"We broke the state up into four quadrants. We assigned a federal prosecutor to each of those quadrants and then that federal prosecutor worked really, really closely with state, local and federal law enforcement in his or her quadrant in order to prioritize the investigations and prosecutions that we thought would be most impactful in Vermont. So I'm extraordinarily proud of the work we did there.

"I'm also proud of the nontraditional tools that we brought to bear on the heroin crisis. Things like the Rutland federal drug court, which was in its infancy when I arrived at the office and which received strong support from us. Like the re-entry court in Vermont, which focuses on bringing people who have been convicted back into society and giving them the skills and often the addiction-coping skills that they need to be successful. And using civil forfeiture tools in a judicious way in order to rid communities of drug houses and at least in one instance, turn them into safe affordable owner-occupied housing in a neighborhood in Rutland. So the suite of initiatives that we've taken on with respect to the heroin initiative, I think, have been effective and I'm proud of them.

"[A] thing I'm really proud of is the work our office has done with respect to civil rights in Vermont. When I arrived, we had a very good civil rights program, but I think that we have strengthened and built that in a number of ways." – Former U.S. Attorney Eric Miller

"The other thing I'm really proud of is the work our office has done with respect to civil rights in Vermont. When I arrived, we had a very good civil rights program, but I think that we have strengthened and built that in a number of ways. First, both our civil rights coordinator Kolo Kerest and I spent a lot of time reaching out to and improving our relationships with the portions of our community that are most often negatively affected by civil rights violations ... Those being [the] African-American community, the new American community, the Muslim-American community among others. And we've spent a lot of time – and I hope successful, really worthwhile time – reaching out to those communities, making sure we better understand their concerns and better understand the civil rights violations that are taking place in Vermont so that we can play a positive role in remedying them. 

"In addition to that, we were last year able to add a full-time federal prosecutor who is dedicated to enforcing federal civil rights laws in Vermont, and that's a big deal. We haven't added a prosecutor in seven or eight years to this office, but this is a permanent fully-funded position that is dedicated to that part of our mission. In addition, we added a civil rights intake coordinator who should be hired by the office very soon. Together, that group of people, I think, is going to be able to make us — make the office — a real leader in civil rights enforcement in Vermont. I'm really proud of the work that we've done in that area, as well."

VPR: If something could be considered your catchphrase, it would probably be, 'We're not the Department of Prosecution, we're the Department of Justice.' And you have always highlighted the role that you and that the office plays in this idea of justice and ways of trying to make society whole rather than just prosecute people for crimes. How did that become so infused in your work as a lawyer?

Miller: "It's always been an important part of the work that the U.S. attorney's office in Vermont has done. My predecessors, I think, have equally emphasized that through the work that they have supported in the office. But I think it's also true for many of us who become lawyers – we become lawyers because we view the law as an effective tool to make life better in a bunch of different ways. And one of the reasons I was so excited about taking this job two years ago, when Sen. Leahy recommended me to President Obama, for it was because I saw the U.S. attorney's office as sitting at the intersection of so many really difficult and important issues, and it could touch upon many of them in different ways.

"I can't think of an office that is doing more for Vermont than the U.S. attorney's office, and that's because all of the really amazing men and women who work there I think hold this idea of serving justice above all else."

"You know, obviously the heroin epidemic, as we've discussed, was top of that list. Human trafficking is on that list. Civil rights, which we've discussed, is on that list. The environment, poverty, so many things that we affect – some in ways more direct than others – but we have the ability to contribute positively on so many fronts. I can't think of an office that is doing more for Vermont than the U.S. attorney's office, and that's because all of the really amazing men and women who work there I think hold this idea of serving justice above all else, really at the forefront of their thoughts as they do their work."

VPR: So then why leave? You serve at the pleasure of the president and we have a new president, but at least to my knowledge, he hadn't forced you out. He hadn't fired you. He hadn't named a replacement. So if all of that work is so valuable and so valuable to you, why resign?

Miller: "That's a good question, and let me put it in context. As you pointed out, the U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president and they serve at his pleasure. It is customary when there is a new president, and particularly when there is a new president from a different party, that the incumbent U.S. attorneys will tender their resignations sometime around inauguration. Some leave a little before, some leave a little after, some agree to remain on for a short period of time while their successors are nominated and confirmed.

"The day after the election, I walked around our office and sat in each of the offices there and told my folks that I would in all likelihood leave sometime around inauguration. And that's exactly what I did. So, by the way, did most of my colleagues. Fewer than half of President Obama's appointed U.S. attorneys remain in office at this point.

"In my view it is very important that the U.S. attorney be comfortable advocating honestly, forcefully and effectively for the priorities of the president and the attorney general that he or she serves."

"And so you know, in my view it is very important that the U.S. attorney be comfortable advocating honestly, forcefully and effectively for the priorities of the president and the attorney general that he or she serves. I was able to do that under President Obama and I was really proud to advocate for his priorities and those of Attorney General Lynch. But with the inauguration of a new president, who I think we would all agree has articulated a very different set of priorities, I decided it was time for me to move on."

VPR: Your resignation certainly made a ripple in Vermont media and that's probably in no small part because of the statement that you released when you tendered your resignation. You mentioned Sally Yates, who was fired by President Donald Trump. You talked about people who you see as allies in Vermont. And it was not exactly explicit, but it was fairly implied that you don't agree with the policies of President Donald Trump.

Miller: "In the statement that I released announcing my resignation, I did what I think most U.S. attorneys do, which is highlight the work of the office during my tenure that I'm most proud of. So I highlighted our work on heroin. I highlighted our work on human trafficking. I highlighted our civil rights work and I highlighted in particular the relationships that we've built with communities most negatively affected by civil rights violations, including Vermont's Muslim community.

"And if those priorities appear to the reader as being in conflict with those articulated by the new administration, I don't think that should come as any surprise, right? The U.S. attorney, as I said, should build his or her work around the priorities of the president and the attorney general he serves. And we have a new president who has articulated very different priorities than President Obama who appointed me. I and my Obama-appointed colleagues felt strongly, as did our bosses, that we make our country more safe and more just by building trusting relationships with all corners of the community that we serve. And so the accomplishments of the office that I highlighted in my resignation statement were precisely those. I'm proud of them and I'm going to remain proud of them."

VPR: You couldn't work for a President Trump?

Miller: "The greatest joy of this job over the better part of the last two years has been to support the great work of the office and to go out and advocate honestly for positions and initiatives that I believe make life better for Vermonters and which I very, very strongly believe in. I could do that under the Obama administration. In fact, I was proud to do that under the Obama administration. But every president and attorney general are entitled to U.S. attorneys who share at least their fundamental views of the role of the office. And that's why it was time for me to leave."

"The greatest joy of this job over the better part of the last two years has been to support the great work of the office and to go out and advocate honestly for positions and initiatives that I believe make life better for Vermonters and which I very, very strongly believe in."

VPR: As you mentioned, the U.S. attorney is the position that is appointed by the president and that is a political appointee. Other people who work in that office are career attorneys and their field is law – they're not really involved in politics, except that they work for the U.S. attorney's office. The U.S. attorney can in some ways give political cover or create this barrier between the policies of an administration and the work that the office is doing. Do you have any concerns about who might be appointed to your position now, and how that might influence the work of these people who worked for you up until last Friday?

Miller: "First, you're exactly right to say that the real work of the office is done by career civil servants – lawyers and non-lawyers who investigate cases, they prosecute cases – and the office has always and will always carry out that work without regard to politics. It is nonetheless true that the U.S. attorney provides energy and direction behind certain initiatives.

"We've talked today about some of those that were important to me and those that I've poured energy into. And as a result, whoever is lucky enough to be the next presidentially-appointed U.S. attorney for Vermont will have some choices to make about what he or she believes are the most important initiatives for the office. It's my hope that the work that we've done has proven its worth and has proven effective and has created expectations in constituents outside the office that they now expect our office to be a leader on civil rights. They expect our office to be a leader on heroin. And that together, those pressures – in the best sense of the word – will cause the most important of the work to continue with real energy and purpose."

"This is the first time in 30 years that I've left a job or a school without knowing what comes next. And there is great freedom in that, and I'm doing my best to embrace that right now and to explore whatever wonderful possibilities Vermont has to offer."

VPR: When you think about the next step or the next adventure for you, what's in play?

Miller: "Well that's a good question. You know, this is the first time in 30 years that I've left a job or a school without knowing what comes next. And there is great freedom in that and I'm doing my best to embrace that right now, and to explore whatever wonderful possibilities Vermont has to offer. Whatever I end up doing, it's my hope that either through that job or through time that I spend away from that job, that I'll continue to be able to help others advance some of the same priorities that we've discussed today, because they have become personally really important to me during my time in the U.S. attorney's office.

"As I said, I know that many of them are going to continue to receive enormous support and energy from the next U.S. attorney and from the career staff there. But I'm going to do what I can to, you know, help those, whether they're in the public sector or the private sector, to continue to make progress on some of these problems if they're willing to have my help. ...

"I made a very concerted decision not to begin looking for a new job until I left my last one and there are a lot of good reasons to do that. First to make sure you're focused on the task at hand. Second to make sure you avoid any conflicts of interest. I have now been out of the U.S. attorney's office for exactly two and a half working days. ... I have not yet gotten very far in the job search."