OUR OPINION: Overkill on AG’s powers may backfire

By NEMS Daily Journal

Republicans won an historic election victory last fall in Mississippi when they gained a majority in the state House of Representatives for the first time since post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Clearly, the Republican leadership was entitled by virtue of the election results to attempt passage of legislation previously thwarted by the Democratic majority in the House. One of those bills would limit the hiring of outside counsel by the state attorney general to pursue cases on behalf of the state, as in the tobacco settlement of the late 1990s and similar though smaller scale cases brought by incumbent Attorney General
Jim Hood, a Democrat, during his two terms in office.
Republicans argued that these cases were used to reward the political contributors of Hood, and his predecessor Mike Moore, with lucrative
payoffs. It didn’t help that some of the attorneys who benefited most in the past – including Dickie Scruggs of Oxford and Joey Langston of Booneville – have since wound up in federal prison in judicial briber scandals.
Hood has argued that he hires the lawyers who propose a case he thinks can be successful, that they can devote time and resources to the cases that his staff can’t, and that they only get paid if the state is successful.
The voters have heard the arguments of both sides for two election cycles now – when Hood first ran for re-election in 2007 and again in 2011. In both instances, they easily re-elected Hood against Republican opponents who ran heavily on that issue.
Either the voters don’t know about the issue – which would be hard to imagine, given the attention it’s gotten – or they’ve decided it’s OK with them.
That’s what makes the effort this legislative session to take others of Hood’s powers, including allowing state agencies to hire outside counsel when they don’t think the AG’s office will adequately represent them, look a bit like political overkill. Such a bill was killed on a rule technicality last week, but it’s likely to be back before the House quickly.
The attorney general’s office is designated as the legal representative for state agencies. Taking that role away from the AG clearly risks unnecessary additional expense and overlap of responsibilities. It has the clear markings of a politically punitive move around a duly elected constitutional officer of the state, who happens to be the only statewide Democratic elected official amid a sea of Republicans.
Hood isn’t above politics, of course. Few would argue that. But the new Republican majority, which is entitled to push its own program, should consider the other side of this particular question: That Hood, whose powers they seek to eviscerate, was elected three times by the voters as well.

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