AG candidate Baker says Mississippi should end its alliance with private lawyers

By Brian Brueggemann | Apr 9, 2019

JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) – A candidate for attorney general of Mississippi says the office needs to quit the practice of letting private lawyers sue businesses on behalf of the state.

State Rep. Mark Baker, one of three Republicans seeking the party's nomination, says using outside lawyers who collect contingency fees when they sue on behalf of the state is "just a rampant abuse."

"It's a business-killer and a job-killer," he told Legal Newsline. "It removes public policy analysis from the issue when you have outside counsel that are given those types of contracts because you're no longer looking for a resolution to the issue, you're simply looking for what I call 'taxation by litigation.'"

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, like his counterparts in several states, has used outside counsel to litigate multiple lawsuits against various businesses. Private lawyers hired by former Mississippi AG Mike Moore were integral in the massive tobacco settlement of the 1990s, though one of them, Dickie Scruggs, ended up in jail for attempting to bribe judges.

Mississippi state Rep. Mark Baker   Provided

Hood has taken criticism for taking campaign contributions from the very law firms that received contracts - and won big contingency fees - for handling such lawsuits. He hired Bailey Perrin after the firm gave him $75,000 to sue pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly & Co.

Baker said that in many cases, the underlying issues in these types of lawsuits have already been litigated elsewhere, so the private lawyers end up doing little more than filing a cookie-cutter suit and "standing in line for a paycheck."

Baker said he thinks staff lawyers in the Attorney General's Office could handle the cases. He said Hood has awarded more than 100 no-bid contingency contracts.

One of the other Republican candidates, state Treasurer Lynn Fitch, has left open the possibility of continuing to use outside counsel for contingency-fee cases.

Fitch recently told Mississippi Today: “As you would in any law firm, you’ve got great in-house individuals, lawyers, you would certainly use … as your first base because it’s more efficient and effective. But as in any law firms, there will be times that you don’t have all the subject-matter experts in your firm so you will need to look to outside counsel to have some hired at the right times.”

Fitch also is having a campaign event with Ken Starr, who now works at a large plaintiff firm, Lanier Law Firm, whose areas of expertise include product liability, pharmaceutical liability and asbestos. A spokeswoman for Fitch said the fundraiser event with Starr is an opportunity for attendees to hear him speak about his service as Independent Counsel during an investigation of President Bill Clinton. Starr has released a new book about the investigation. The event has nothing to do with the use of contingency-fee attorneys, the spokeswoman said.

Baker declined comment on whether the event with Starr signals that Fitch will have an allegiance with plaintiff firms.

"I'm going to stay in my lane right now. We'll talk about those issues later, at a different point in time," Baker said.

The others running in the primary are Andy Taggart, a Republican, and Jennifer Collins, a Democrat.

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