Miss. lawmaker says 'Sunshine' bill will stop AG's favoritism

Jessica M. Karmasek Feb. 28, 2012, 12:00pm



JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - The sponsor of a bill aimed at limiting Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's authority says the measure will prevent the attorney general from "unilaterally dictating" the public policy of the state.

State Rep. Mark Baker, a Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary A Committee, defended House Bill 211, also known as the Sunshine Act, in a guest column published Friday in The Clarion-Ledger.

The bill, which was referred to a Senate judiciary committee last week, would allow state officials, agencies, boards, commissions, departments or institutions to hire their own outside attorneys over the state's top lawyer.

Baker is one of the sponsors of HB 211, along with House Speaker Philip Gunn. Gunn and other state Republicans have long been critical of Hood and his office.

Baker, in his column, said the "last straw" was Hood's unwillingness to join the multistate lawsuit against President Barack Obama's health care law.

In an interview in October, Hood said there was no need to waste taxpayer money on joining the lawsuit. The attorney general said he knew the case would end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

A total of 14 states, later joined by 12 others, filed a separate challenge to the law in 2010.

In September, the states filed a petition to have their challenge heard immediately by the nation's highest court.

The Court, which agreed in November to hear the case, will hear oral arguments on the four issues involved in the challenge to the law over three days in March. It could make a ruling in June.

"The question you have to ask yourself on this issue is this: Should one person in the state, without any oversight or check and balance, have the right to solely decide whether to fight against mandates that will result in the most drastic cuts in K-12 education, public safety, corrections, and even the Public Employees Retirement System, ever, or the largest tax increase in our history, or both?" Baker wrote.

"As the lawyer for our state, the fact that our current attorney general will not be in the fight as these matters are being considered by the courts is incredibly telling."

Baker said the health care lawsuit is a perfect example of why the Sunshine Act is needed.

"When the attorney general, now or in the future, abdicates his responsibility we will not have to hope that our interests will be protected by attorneys general from other states but rather we, for ourselves, will be able pick up the mantle and join the fight," he wrote.

The Sunshine Act also will stop the "revolving door of political favoritism" in hiring of outside lawyers to represent the State and so-called "pay-for-play" arrangements, Baker said.

"The attorney general claims passage of the act will take away what he perceives as his authority to singularly decide our political and policy interests, to determine which lawsuits to fight, or not, and to determine which of his friends he can hire to do his bidding," Baker wrote.

"He's right, and I think it's clear that more sunshine is a necessary and responsible way to bring about more openness and accountability in our state."

Hood, in his own guest column published Monday in the Hattiesburg American, attacked lawmakers' efforts.

The attorney general, who argues HB 211 is unconstitutional and will end up costing taxpayers, said the bill is a "recipe for disaster, legally and ethically."

"Every effort must be made to put down this short-sighted attempt to strip the people of a constitutionally empowered attorney general and replace him with a barrel full of hand-picked lawyers doing the bidding of a few politically minded individuals," Hood wrote.

He argues that without his office's help, there would be no health care trust fund or $4 billion tobacco settlement because the then-governor and state Division of Medicaid would have overrode the attorney general's efforts to secure that money for the state.

"The fact is that the current system works," Hood wrote.

"To circumvent this system is to open the door to every kind of corporate wrongdoer, eliminating our ability to punish them and recover the money that they have taken from you."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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