An attempt to rein in the state attorney general’s use of outside counsel for some lawsuits failed in a surprisingly close 58-60 vote Wednesday afternoon.
The bill, HB 555, would establish a three-member commission to approve the use of outside attorneys in cases that could result in legal awards of more than $250,000. The governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state would sit on the commission.
Debate over the legislation featured the most bitterly partisan exchanges so far in the two-week-old session.
Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, who chairs the House Judiciary A Committee, said the current attorney general — Democrat Jim Hood — engages in “taxation by litigation” by suing large companies.
This week, Hood announced a new lawsuit against Google and a settlement against Moody’s rating agency that resulted in $26 million for state taxpayers.
Over the past five years, legislative Republicans have successfully chipped away at some of the authority of the attorney general’s office, the only constitutional position currently occupied by a Democrat.
In 2012, Republicans pushed through a measure that allowed state agencies to hire contract lawyers, going around the state Attorney General, which usually represents the state in most matters. The move was a response to Hood declining to join in a lawsuit with other Republican-led states over the Affordable Care Act.
Several Democrats questioned the motive behind the bill debated on Wednesday.
Attorneys general “have been suing people since time immemorial for the wrongs they think they’ve done,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.
Baker responded by saying that Hood does not always stick up for the state when he should.
In addition to the Obamacare lawsuit, Baker said Hood declined to act when the U.S. Justice Department “was going to keep its foot on our neck” over the state’s voter ID law, passed by ballot initiative in 2011 and implemented in 2012.
Hood has also declined to enter lawsuits over federal immigration policy and same sex adoption.
Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said Hood’s lawsuits generate money for the state treasury while a number of Republican-backed bills have also wound up in the federal courts, often with Mississippi on the losing side and owing millions in legal fees.
In recent years, Mississippi has defended an abortion-clinic admitting privileges law that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, its same-sex marriage ban and, most recently, a law that could give individuals and businesses the right to deny marriage-related services to LGBT people.
Baker said it’s the Attorney General’s job to defend laws passed in the Legislature.
“It does happen from time to time that we get sued on the laws that we pass,” Baker said.
Four members abstained from the vote on the measure, which was held on a motion to reconsider. That means the bill can be brought up for debate and another vote at any time.
After several audible boos came from the House floor following the vote, House Speaker Philip Gunn admonished the members, saying: “We’re not going to do that.”