Miss. lawmakers send bill limiting AG's power to governor

By Jessica M. Karmasek | May 3, 2012




JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - A bill aimed at limiting Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's power is on its way to Gov. Phil Bryant's desk.

House Bill 211, brought by the state's Republican lawmakers, intends to curb Hood's ability to hire outside lawyers.

In particular, HB 211 allows state officials, agencies, boards, commissions, departments or institutions to hire their own outside attorneys over the state's top lawyer.

The measure also requires the attorney general or any other state official make public contracts with outside lawyers. The contracts must be filed with a state board, and any contracts for more than $100,000 must be approved by that board.

Also under the bill, the share of a verdict that would go to private lawyers hired on contingency would be limited, capped at $50 million.

HB 211 also would create a three-person panel called the Outside Counsel Oversight Commission. The commission would include the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state, and would deal with any related disputes.

According to the state Legislature's website, the state House of Representatives voted for final passage of the bill on Tuesday, 64-55.

The Senate also supported the measure in a 34-18 vote taken Wednesday.

If signed by Bryant, a Republican himself, HB 211 would become effective July 1.

Hood, the only Democrat to hold a statewide elected office, has argued that the bill violates the Mississippi Constitution, which gives him the sole authority to speak in court with one voice on behalf of the State.

"If HB 211 becomes law, the more than 200 men and women of the Attorney General's Office who now help shield our residents from corporate wrongdoers will no longer be able to protect them. And that's why every effort must be made to put down this short-sighted attempt to strip the people of a constitutionally empowered attorney general and instead hire a barrel full of hand-picked lawyers doing the bidding of a few politically minded individuals. Not only is it a recipe for disaster legally and ethically, it will cost taxpayers millions of extra dollars each year," Hood said in a statement Tuesday.

"Most frightening is that House Bill 211 prevents Mississippi from speaking in one, united legal voice.

"When facing corporate wrongdoers, like BP, Mississippi's best chance for full recovery of the state's damages is to fight BP together. House Bill 211 could allow any agency allegedly affected by the BP spill to hire lawyers, go to court and settle claims, thereby fracturing Mississippi's united defense against corporate wrongdoing."

The explosion and fire occurred on Transocean's drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, licensed to BP, on April 20, 2010.

The accident killed 11 workers and resulted in the largest offshore spill -- an estimated 210 million gallons of oil -- in U.S. history.

In March, Hood confirmed he hired former Attorney General Mike Moore, who served as the state's top lawyer from 1988 to 2004, and former state Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson to handle Mississippi's claims against the oil giant.

Moore, who now heads the Mike Moore Law Firm LLC in Flowood, was the first to file a lawsuit against a group of tobacco companies in 1994, insisting they should reimburse the state for the costs of treating those with smoking-related illnesses.

Moore eventually was named the lead negotiator of the Master Settlement Agreement, reached in 1998 by a total of 46 states and the four largest tobacco companies at the time.

The deal was worth $246 billion, including $4.1 billion for Mississippi, which was represented by now-jailed attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs.

Anderson, who served on the Court from 1985 to 1991, is now a senior partner at the law firm of Phelps Dunbar LLP in Jackson.

The attorney general's hiring of Moore and Anderson is exactly what GOP lawmakers are targeting in writing and passing HB 211.

Sponsors of the measure have said the bill would prevent Hood, or any other attorney general, from dictating the public policy of the state and would stop any possible political favoritism in hiring of outside lawyers.

In an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday, Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Briggs Hopson, a Republican from Vicksburg, denied that anything in HB 211 is unconstitutional.

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

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