With the Mississippi House passage of HB 555, the state has taken a bold step in providing much needed oversight for the hiring of outside counsel by the state attorney general.
HB 555 would require the state AG to seek approval by the Outside Counsel Oversight Commission, comprised of the governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of senate, before initiating any litigation valued over $250,000, including lawsuits brought with outside contingency fee counsel.
As ILR has written previously, awarding state contingency fee contracts to outside plaintiffs’ lawyers often enriches lawyers at the expense of taxpayers and raises concerns about “pay-to-play,” conflicts of interest, and fairness in prosecutions.
The Mississippi AG, Jim Hood, hires private trial lawyers to bring cases on behalf of the state more than any other AG in the country. Lest we forget the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning story on how Hood accepted $395,000 in campaign contributions from trial law firms over the last decade – once again setting a record among AG’s.
When AG’s dole out these lawsuits to private trial lawyers, they delegate the power of the state to these outside parties. Private trial lawyers are able to sue on behalf of the government and can subpoena records in search of potential additional lawsuits.
You may think these questionable dealings are rare, but this practice has become pervasive. As the New York Times wrote, at least “15 states show how these alliances [between state AGs and law firms] have scrambled roles in the legal profession.” Former Massachusetts AG Scott Harshbarger said it best when stating the practice has “gotten out of hand” and “seriously threatens the perception of integrity and professionalism of the office.” Oversight and reform of this practice has become a pressing need.
The Mississippi House took a strong first step to ensure that public funding isn’t used to line private attorneys’ pockets. Now it is time for the Senate to act accordingly.