AGs' actions can have 'far-reaching' implications

Chris Rizo Aug. 3, 2009, 3:57pm

SUN VALLEY, Idaho (Legal Newsline)-There are oftentimes broad public policy implications to lawsuits that states file on behalf of consumers, the director of the Northwestern Law Attorneys General Education Program said Monday.

Linda Kelly, director of the Northwestern Law Attorneys General Education Program, said legal decisions made by state attorneys general have fallout sometimes far from their own states.

Speaking at the Conference of Western Attorneys General, Kelly said Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson's lawsuit last month against the National Arbitration Forum has changed parts of the legal landscape nationally.

Swanson filed her suit July 14 against the National Arbitration Forum, which settled the Democratic attorney general's claims six days later.

In her complaint, Swanson alleged that NAF informs consumers that it is an impartial entity, while convincing credit card companies and lenders to insert arbitration clauses into their contracts and then appoint the Minneapolis -based organization to handle the negotiating.

After settling the lawsuit, NAF announced it was suspending its consumer arbitration operations. The American Arbitration Association followed suit.

The case is an example of how a lawsuit filed by one AG can have national implications, Kelly said.

"Basically, with just this one lawsuit she got the National Arbitration Forum to agree to get out of the business entirely," Kelly said, noting that for years Congress has been grappling with consumer arbitration regulations. "This is an example of how far-reaching your actions can be."

Northwestern's program, run under the Searle Center of Law, Regulation and Economic Growth, is designed to provide attorneys general and their staff with "balanced" presentations, Kelly said.

Columbia University Law School also has an attorney general education program. The National State Attorneys General Program at the New York campus is headed by James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine. The Northwestern program is based at the school's Chicago campus.

"We're really striving to provide educational programming that's different - that's focused in a different manner than any of the others out there," Kelly said. "One factor that distinguishes our program is that we're trying to take a 30,000-foot public policy focus rather than focusing on different lines of litigation or litigation issues, specifically."

On the program's advisory board are three Democratic AGs - Lisa Madigan of Illinois, Thurbert Baker of Georgia and Martha Coakley of Massachusetts -- and three Republican attorneys general -- John Suthers of Colorado, Rob McKenna of Washington and Bill McCollum of Florida.

The purpose of the bipartisan advisory board is simple, she said, "I definitely want to be sure that we have some oversight to make sure we are providing balance in our programs. It is an important value to me and to the Searle Center."

At its inaugural program in April, eight attorneys general heard presentations on the national financial crisis and what state enforcement issues could arise from the collapse.

"We also talked about federal preemption and the balance between preemption and consumer protection, and the appropriate role of the federal government and the state governments, which is an important perennial issue," Kelly said.

In June, the center hosted 41 AG staffers, representing 25 different states, to discuss broader economic issues.

"The idea is to enhance the tool kit of the staff to evaluate issues," Kelly said, adding the cost for attending the program is covered by the Searle Center.

She said the next AG training seminar is scheduled for October. Among issues likely to be discussed include Internet regulation, data privacy and antitrust law.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, attended the center's first program. He said Northwestern's fledgling AG program is a testament to the new level of interest in what state chief legal officers are doing.

"Frankly, the legal world and the world as a whole is recognizing ... the influence that AGs are exercising," Suthers said.

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