State's legal fees case far from settled – sort of

By Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press

JACKSON – The Mississippi Supreme Court has settled the dispute over fees paid to private attorneys hired by the attorney general to assist with lawsuits on behalf of the state – sort of.
There continues to be disagreement over what the Supreme Court meant in decisions handed down this past week, and rectifying that falls to judges in the Hinds County Circuit Courts where this began five years ago.
Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, said the opinions “simply give us direction” about how to handle attorney payments.
“It simply says that the lawyers in these cases could not be paid directly from the defendants, and that money must flow through a state account first,” Hood said. “In fact, the court reiterated the attorney general’s ability to hire good lawyers to bring important suits on behalf of Mississippi, such as with these cases.”
State Auditor Stacey Pickering, a Republican, was on the other side of the dispute.
“The Supreme Court agreed that the Mississippi statute uses the mandatory term ‘shall,’ and we view this mandate as declaratory that all fees paid through contingency fee contracts are public funds and must be appropriated by the Mississippi Legislature,” Pickering said.
They are both right and wrong – sort of.
Presiding Justice Jess Dickinson said in the two cases that when Hood pays special assistants – meaning, outside counsel – Mississippi law “requires that they are paid from the attorney general’s contingent fund or from other funds appropriated to the attorney general’s office by the Legislature.”
Pickering said all of the money should go into into the state treasury after which the lawyers should submit a bill, or voucher, to the Legislature and the Legislature would pay them.
The Supreme Court didn’t do what Pickering wanted.
A Hinds County judge in 2010 ruled the $14 million in fees paid to the Langston Law Firm for handling a state lawsuit against telecommunications giant MCI was properly handled.
Another Hinds County judge ruled the same in another case in 2010 involving $10 million in fees paid to lawyers for handling a state lawsuit against computer software maker Microsoft.
Hood has said that paying the private attorneys is part of the settlement of the lawsuit but is not counted as part of the money the state receives. He has said the lawyers’ fees were negotiated separately with MCI and Microsoft after settlements were made with the state.
Pickering said the Hinds County court will decide if the attorneys should return the money so the money can be paid through the attorney general’s office.
The MCI case involved the resolution of an unpaid tax debt to the state. Dickinson, writing for the Supreme Court majority, said all the delinquent tax funds should have gone to the “proper” treasury and then paid to the Langston law firm.
Justice Leslie King said the law firms had a valid contract with the state and were entitled to their fees being paid from the settlement.
“Beyond question, the better approach would have been to submit all of the settlement proceeds to the attorney general, have him to deposit those settlement proceeds into his contingency account and then write a check to Langston Law Firm for the fees earned for professional services.
“However that did not happen,” King said.
King said for the Supreme Court to now require that “would, at best, be an inefficient and totally symbolic gesture.”
Fred Krutz, an attorney for the Langston law firm, said the Supreme Court’s decision is being reviewed.
Now, while the Supreme Court has said what the state law provides, the Hinds County court must now apply it. The dispute is far from settled – sort of.

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