House bill would strip attorney general's power to file lawsuits for state

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Legislation designed to curb the power of Mississippi’s sole Democratic statewide elected official will apparently be the second bill taken up during the 2012 legislative session.
On Tuesday, the House Judiciary A Committee passed legislation known as the Sunshine Act. It could be taken up by the House as early as Thursday.
Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood said the new Republican leadership of the House is trying to pass the legislation “under the cover of darkness.”
Hood said during a Tuesday news conference the bill was introduced after 5 p.m. Monday and was taken up by the Judiciary A Committee early Tuesday morning despite pleas by Hood to postpone the meeting because he was scheduled to be at another legislative committee.
And Hood said when he asked House Judiciary A Chair Mark Baker, R-Brandon, to allow him to talk to the committee about the legislation he was denied. Baker said if Hood had asked to speak on the bill during the hearing he would have recognized him.
The legislation is an effort to curb Hood’s authority to hire outside attorneys to file lawsuits on behalf of the state on a contingency fee basis.
It also would allow state agencies to hire their own attorneys. Currently, state agencies are represented by the attorney general. The legislation also would allow state agency heads to hire their own attorney to oppose lawsuits Hood might file on their behalf.
For instance, in the 1990s former Gov. Kirk Fordice opposed the tobacco lawsuit former Attorney General Mike Moore filed and won, resulting in the state being paid $4 billion over a 25-year period by the tobacco companies. Hood said the legislation would make it more difficult to file those suits.
Plus, he said he is concerned the legislation will be amended in the process to try to further impede his ability to file the lawsuits.
Hood said the legislation is unconstitutional, and it will be challenged in court if it is passed.
In recent years, the Republican-controlled Senate passed similar legislation, but it was killed by the Democratic majority in the House. With Republicans in control of both chambers, it has been speculated that legislation aimed at Hood’s authority to hire outside counsel would be taken up.
Tuesday’s Judiciary A Committee action was the first salvo in that effort.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, said he supports similar legislation. Reeves said the system where the AG’s office represents state agencies “can create conflicts when the attorney general’s office refuses to handle a case on behalf of the agency or takes a legal stance opposite the agency’s interest.”
Reeves cited the example of his lawsuit filed when he was treasurer to stop a portion of the tobacco lawsuit settlement funds from going to the non-profit Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, which worked on smoking cessation issues. Reeves said those funds should go to the state instead of the Partnership.
Reeves prevailed in the lawsuit. Hood also ultimately signed off on the private attorney Reeves hired.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com