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Senators vote to restrict attorney general's powers

JACKSON — The Mississippi Senate voted 32-17 yesterday to restrict Attorney General Jim Hood’s power to control the state’s legal business.

The bill would write into law what share of a verdict could be earned by outside lawyers hired on contingency. It would also require that the attorney general appoint outside lawyers if he had a “significant disagreement as to the legal strategy” with the head of an agency or elected official who had a legal issue.

The attorney general would also have to appoint outside lawyers if he declined to represent an agency.

The measure creates a three-man panel composed of the governor, the lieutenant governor and secretary of state that would referee such disputes, deciding who should prevail. The loser could appeal into court.

The House already passed its own bill aimed at curbing the attorney general’s power. Both measures require the attorney general to make public contracts with outside lawyers. The House’s bill requires all outside legal contracts be filed with a state board, and require the board to approve contracts worth more than $100,000.

Hood opposed the House bill. He did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Sponsors have said that the House bill would never bar the attorney general from going into court, although that could mean two lawyers each claiming to represent the state. But Senate Judiciary A chairman Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said the panel in the Senate bill would pick a winner in disputes, barring the loser from representing himself in the ensuing litigation. He said he expected the mechanism to be used rarely. He also said he thought the panel would be an effective barrier to the state spending too much money on outside lawyers.

“I don’t believe our governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state are going to allow agencies to go off willy-nilly and hire a whole bunch of attorneys,” Hopson said.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, questioned whether that could have meant that the state could have settled for just a few million dollars in its litigation with Worldcom, instead of the big haul it ultimately raked in. That case sparked a furor over a lawyer’s fee that provided one of the original pushes for the bill. Proponents of limits have said that attorneys general give lucrative cases to their political allies, who in turn give campaign contributions back to the official.

“One of the things that makes my head explode is the endless obsession with that $14 million attorney’s fee,” Bryan said. “If we didn’t pay that $14 million, we wouldn’t have $100 million and a building in downtown Jackson.”

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said he fears the bill was an attempt to punish Hood, the last statewide elected Democrat, for partisan reasons. Hopson denied that.

“Partisanship? No,” Hopson said. “I think this is good for the attorney general and good for the state of Mississippi.”

Hood has claimed that efforts to limit his power are unconstitutional, pointing to a decades-old court case that supports the view. He has threatened to sue over limits to his power.

Hopson denied that anything in the bill is unconstitutional.

The bills are Senate Bill 2576 and House Bill 211.

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