I'm a bit late to this, but there was an interesting development this week in Mississippi, long known as a trial lawyer's haven and home to some astonishingly large plaintiff attorney payouts.
The state finally passed sunshine legislation, after repeated attempts over the years — including by former Gov. Haley Barbour, who couldn't get it through a rival-party Legislature — and it was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant yesterday. It limits fees to state-hired private lawyers at $50 million.
It also calls for the attorney general — currently Jim Hood — to attest on paper that there is a justifiable need for outside counsel. The fees and their contracts have to be made public, which is also a big part of the new law.
The move is largely a sign of the shifting times, in a state that's been home to a number of controversial payouts to attorneys and controversial moves by Hood involving outside counsel.
It's also seen its share of scandal related to payouts to trial lawyers, notably the March 2008 guilty plea by Dickie Scruggs, who had initially been charged with bribery. Scruggs, a well-known Mississippi lawyer and the brother-in-law of former Sen. Trent Lott, had been selected by his ally, former AG Michael Moore, to help with the tobacco lawsuit that ultimately became the basis for the movie "The Insider."
The case netted a settlement of nearly $250 billion — roughly $1.5 billion of which Scruggs claimed in legal fees. Scruggs would have gotten $50 million under the new law, leaving the remainder to the incredibly poor state's coffers. Another famous Mississippi lawyer, Joseph Langston, withdrew as Scruggs's attorney in his corruption case because he was ensnared on corruption charges and pleaded guilty a few months before his client ultimately did.
The two became synonymous with abuses of a system that favored connected trial lawyers.
More recently, Hood has come under fire for bringing on, at taxpayer expense, a lawyer who was a campaign contributor — and whose firm netted $14 million in fees. He also issued a loosely worded contract, void of any details about fees, for an outside firm to handle suit against BP.
Business leaders had worked with local Republicans over the years on the legislation but didn't get it through until the Mississippi House was flipped in the 2011 election.