By NEMS Daily Journal
Gov. Phil Bryant is almost certain to sign a bill intended to crimp the attorney general’s power to hire outside counsel – private-sector lawyers – to handle litigation on the state’s behalf on a fee contingency basis (a share of any money damages awarded the state).
The incumbent, Jim Hood, cries politics over the bill and asserts it’s unconstitutional.
The bill is inarguably political, and a court probably will have to decide Hood’s claims of unconstitutionality.
Hood, and his immediate predecessor, Mike Moore, legally hired some of the best trial lawyers in Mississippi to sue on the state’s behalf on a contingency basis. Both Hood and Moore are Democrats and on the opposite side are anti-plaiintiffs’-lawyer Republicans.
One of the lawyers hired by Mike Moore, Dickie Scruggs of Oxford and formerly of Pascagoula, and who is a brother-in-law to former GOP Sen. Trent Lott, had spectacular success suing tobacco companies for damages to states financially for health care costs.
The national tobacco lawsuit settlement ($248 billion) brought Mississippi more than $4 billion in damages, gleefully spent by Republicans and Democrats. The fee for Scruggs and other lawyers involved was calculated at about $1 billion.
Hood is perhaps best known for hiring Joey Langston and Timothy Balducci, then Northeast Mississippi plaintiffs’ attorneys, to sue for back taxes owed Mississippi by telecommunications giant MCI.
Mississippi was paid $100 million, and the lawyers were paid $14 million on contingency.
Scruggs, Langston and Balducci all eventually were disbarred in an unrelated scheme to bribe a state-court judge.
Republican business people and politicians, angry because of the trial lawyers’ success in those and many other cases not involving state money, struck back, first with what’s known as tort reform limiting damages.
Attempts to limit the attorney general’s power to hire and pay on contingency basis is not new, but the proponents lacked a Republican majority in the Mississippi House. This year, the GOP has the majority and House Bill 299 is the result.
The bill would place limits on how much contingency-fee lawyers could be paid, and it would require the attorney general to appoint outside lawyers if he or she declines to represent an agency, or if there is a “significant disagreement” with an agency head or elected official.
While the limits are not wholly objectionable, we agree with critics who contend the door has been opened to increased spending on fees, more lawsuits, and possibly lengthy, expensive litigation challenging the law.
If that happens, what has been accomplished except shifting money from one side to the other?