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May 23rd, 2012

ATRA Lauds Mississippi’s ‘Sunshine Act’

As reported by Forbes and other media, Mississippi has now enacted a reform law that will keep present and future attorneys general and other state officials from hiring their friends and political supporters to do legal work without appropriate scrutiny and accountability.  Not surprisingly, sore loser Attorney General Jim Hood fought the Sunshine Act tooth and nail and now threatens — wait for it — another lawsuit, challenging its constitutionality.

Enactment of the Sunshine Act certainly merits consideration among “Points of Light” nominees for the year-end Judicial Hellholes report.  Meanwhile, here’s full text of ATRA’s news release, congratulating Mississippi policymakers on an important job well done:

ATRA LAUDS ENACTMENT OF MISSISSIPPI ‘SUNSHINE ACT’

 Reform Brings Transparency to State Contracts with Private Sector Attorneys, Greater Public Accountability to Government

JACKSON, Miss., May 22, 2012 – In attendance as Gov. Phil Bryant signed an important reform law that will bring greater transparency and accountability to state government, American Tort Reform Association president Tiger Joyce today thanked and congratulated all Mississippi policymakers who have had a hand in crafting and moving the legislation to enactment.

Joyce put the Mississippi bill-signing in broader context, explaining that, “With increasing regularity, state attorneys general have hired personal injury lawyers from the private sector to perform legal work for their states, and hundreds of millions of dollars in contingency fees have sometimes been at stake.  Yet often enough, some state AGs have awarded such potentially lucrative contracts to their political supporters without competitive bidding and with little or no oversight from the public or state legislatures.

“Gov. Bryant, Lt. Gov. Reeves, Speaker Gunn, Chairman Baker, Chairman Hopson and their colleagues all deserve considerable credit for their commitment to Mississippians who deserve to know precisely for what and by whom the state’s money is being spent,” Joyce continued, referring specifically to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Reps. Philip Gunn and Mark Baker, and Sen. Briggs Hopson.

Mississippi’s new Sunshine Act will govern the hiring of outside counsel by state agencies, including contingency fee arrangements.  The legislation allows state agencies to retain outside counsel for cases in which the attorney general declines to represent them or when they believe the attorney general cannot adequately represent their legal interests because of a significant disagreement over legal strategy.

The reform law also defines when an outside attorney may be hired on a contingency fee basis.  Before making such an agreement, the attorney general or state official seeking to do so must provide a written determination that the fee to be paid is both cost-effective and in the public interest.

Other provisions included in the bill:

  • Requires outside counsel to keep detailed time records
  • Places limitations on percentage of a recovery that can be paid as a contingency fee. It also provides that “[a] contingency fee shall not be based on penalties or civil fines awarded or any amounts attributable to penalties or civil fines”
  • Fees paid to outside counsel “shall not exceed recognized bar rates for similar services”
  • Fee limitations can be waived by majority vote of the Outside Counsel Oversight Commission, which will comprise the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state
  • Requires the attorney general to give an agency seven days’ notice before taking any legal action on the agency’s behalf, unless delay would cause the state “irreparable injury.”

Joyce said that ATRA has championed state legislation like the Sunshine Act since 2007 when it issued its Transparency Code for discussion among policymakers.  “ATRA will continue its advocacy for similar good-government legislation, hoping other states will rise to meet the standards for transparency and accountability that Mississippi has now helped set,” concluded Joyce.

-ATRA-

The American Tort Reform Association, based in Washington, D.C., is the only national organization dedicated exclusively to tort and liability reform through public education and the enactment of legislation.  Its members include nonprofit organizations and small and large companies, as well as trade, business and professional associations from the state and national level.

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