Bryant signs bill limiting attorney general’s power to hire lawyers

JACKSON — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant yesterday signed a law limiting the attorney general’s control of the state’s legal business.

The law, which takes effect July 1, requires the attorney general to appoint outside lawyers if he declines to represent an agency or elected official, or if there is a “significant disagreement” with an agency head or official.

It also limits the share of a verdict going to private lawyers hired on contingency, normally capping payments at $50 million.

The measure creates a commission of the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state to referee disputes. All three of those officials are currently Republicans, while Attorney General Jim Hood is the lone Democrat elected statewide.

Hood says limiting the attorney general’s power is unconstitutional, pointing in part to a decades-old court decision, and has threatened to sue. He also says hiring outside lawyers will cost the state more money.

“What the bill did do was to allow state agency directors to pick their friends as lawyers instead of the one the voters chose for them – the attorney general,” Hood said in a statement. “Beyond an act of blatant partisanship, this legislation takes a constitutionally empowered attorney general and attempts to replace him with a barrel full of hand-picked lawyers doing the bidding of a few politically minded individuals. Not only is it a recipe for disaster legally and ethically, it will cost taxpayers millions of extra dollars each year.”

Republicans have long criticized the practice of hiring outside lawyers, saying attorneys general give lucrative cases to their political allies, who in turn give campaign contributions to the official. However, the measure would not restrict that practice as tightly as some have wanted in the past.

“I have long supported and believed in the need for Mississippi to more clearly define its relationships with outside counsel,” Bryant said in a statement.

As state auditor, Bryant issued reports critical of fees paid to lawyers, and as lieutenant governor, the Republican state Senate made efforts at similar laws that were blocked by a Democratic-controlled House. The GOP takeover of the House cleared the way for this year’s law.

The issue has surfaced in other states, in part because conservatives and business interests want to limit the power of attorneys general to bring blockbuster lawsuits against corporations. The biggest suit of that kind was the one where Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore hired Richard “Dickie” Scruggs to sue the tobacco industry. Mississippi settled its litigation in 1997 for an estimated $4.1 billion over time. Scruggs and affiliated lawyers were supposed to rake in a billion dollars in fees over time from the whole $248 billion national settlement. Scruggs later went to prison.

“Mississippi today took a significant step to rein in the troublesome practice of awarding contingency fee contracts to plaintiffs’ lawyers who are also major campaign contributors to the state attorney general,” Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, said in a statement. “Such ‘pay-to-play’ schemes enrich lawyers at the expense of taxpayers and raise significant concerns about conflicts of interest, favoritism, the use of a public entity for personal gain and fairness in prosecutions.”

Hood though, said that the bill is really an attempt to make it harder for states to prevent corporate wrongdoing.

“In the past eight years the office has recovered more than $600 million for our taxpayers from wrongdoers without costing the taxpayers one dime,” he said. “However, the huge corporate interests that paid for and supported this bill through the American Legislative Exchange Council have decided that they did not like having to pay what they owed the taxpayers of Mississippi.”

The Mississippi attorney general could still hire outside lawyers and could still pay them on contingency, under the law. However, the attorney general would be bound by law to publish outside legal contracts, and those lawyers would have to keep time and expense records, down to six-minute intervals. Hood currently publishes contracts voluntarily.

The attorney general wouldn’t be able to file suit until giving an elected official or agency seven working days to object. Those agencies would be able to seek other lawyers from the commission.

If the commission approves an outside lawyer, the law says the attorney general would have to withdraw from representing the agency. However, some supporters have said that while attorney general would be barred from representing an agency or elected official, he could still be able to represent the state as a whole.

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