May 3, 2012 10:29:40 AM
JACKSON -- A measure to limit Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood's ability to control state legal business is on the way to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.
The Mississippi Senate voted 34-18 Wednesday to pass House Bill 211, after the House voted 64-55 for final passage Tuesday. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans.
Hood opposes the bill, saying it's unconstitutional and would cost the state money.
The bill would limit the share of a verdict that would go to private lawyers hired on contingency, normally capping payments at $50 million. It would require the attorney general to appoint outside lawyers if he declines to represent an agency or if there is a "significant disagreement" with an agency head or elected official.
The measure would create a commission of the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state to referee disputes. All three of those current officials are Republicans. Commission decisions could be appealed to court.
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 back to the official. However, the measure would not restrict that practice as tightly as some have wanted in the past.
Hood claims any 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.
Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, again denied Wednesday that anything in the bill is unconstitutional.
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.
The Mississippi attorney general could still hire outside lawyers and could still pay them on contingency, under the bill. 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 how they spend as little as six minutes.
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.
Hood said in a written statement that the bill is a "short-sighted attempt to strip the people of a constitutionally empowered attorney general and instead hire 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."
Hopson said the commission could turn down agencies or elected officials that made bad requests.
"This is going to prevent an agency from going out and hiring counsel willy-nilly," Hopson said.
If the commission approves an outside lawyer, the bill says the attorney general would have to withdraw from representing the agency. However, Hopson said the attorney general could be barred from representing an agency or elected official, but would still be able to represent the state as a whole.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the bill would require an expensive legal fight if it becomes law, and that he ultimately believes Hood will prevail because it would be unconstitutional. Brown noted that Hood has won large sums for the state when agencies might have settled for less.
"He has a terrific track record," Brown said of Hood. "It's clearly about partisan politics. We do not object to sunshine, we've done a lot to create transparency. This is not a transparency bill, this is an attack on Jim Hood and it's totally unnecessary."
Hood said the law could lead to agencies settling piecemeal with BP PLC or similar companies that have wronged the state "thereby fracturing Mississippi's united defense against corporate wrongdoing."