Nov., 16, 2011
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood celebrated a large victory last Tuesday when he won his third re-election term against Republican challenger Steve Simpson, winning 60 percent of the vote. But Hood's real uphill battle may lie in next year's legislative session with Gov.-elect Phil Bryant and a Republican-controlled House and Senate.
The attorney general serves as the chief legal officer and adviser for the state on civil and criminal matters. His office issues legal opinions and interprets state laws, advising state leaders and government agencies.
The AG has the power to bring suit on the state's behalf against corporations or individuals and is one of three members of the state bond commission, along with the governor and state treasurer, which decides what projects receive state bonds.
The governor, on the other hand, is the chief executive officer of the state. He presents a budget to the state Legislature, has the ability to call special sessions and has full veto power over bills passed by state lawmakers.
Gov. Haley Barbour and Hood had their share of differences. In 2006, Barbour announced plans to move state agencies into the Sillers Building in downtown Jackson. His plans did not include the attorney general's office, even though the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration had already spent $28 million to design office space specifically for the AG's cyber-crime unit. After local media outlets reported on the cost of the building, Barbour backed off his plans.
The two officials disagreed on whether the state should have joined a lawsuit challenging the federal Affordable Care Act, known as "Obamacare" to its detractors. Barbour urged Hood to file suit, but in April 2010, Hood wrote a letter to Barbour stating that because only the U.S. Supreme Court can decide the issues in the multi-state suit, "there is no hurry to join the suit," and it would be cheaper for Mississippi to wait. Barbour then hired attorney Michael B. Wallace of Wise, Carter, Child and Caraway in Jackson to represent him in the lawsuit at no cost to the state.
Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government, said Barbour and Hood may not have always agreed on policies, but they were, for the most part, polite to each other. Wiseman predicted that Hood may face changes next year, however. "I would anticipate some effort of the part of a Republican House and Senate, lieutenant governor, and governor to try and limit the office of the attorney general's influence," he said.
Wisemann pointed out that the framers of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution wanted the governor to have limited power and decided to make statewide offices independently elected from the governor. But the trend has been to reverse that, he said.
"Hood is kind of out on an island by himself, but he is a fairly conservative guy himself," Wiseman said. "... He certainly is not a flaming liberal, so there will be positions when he gets along with Republicans just fine. But there will be others where that is not the case. But now, he doesn't have the luxury of having any legislative backing, unless he can develop a relationship with Republicans who can cross the line, and that's not likely."
Over the past several legislative sessions, the state Senate passed a "Sunshine" bill that would have required Hood to conduct bidding for outside counsel receiving cases from the state. The bill died in the House, but this session could be different.
Hood has said that if more entities were involved in the process, it would become politicized. He also said that disclosing potential lawsuits against corporations could threaten their outcomes, and that lawyers would fail to bring suits to the AG's attention if they thought they could not benefit.
Jackson attorney Philip Thomas, author of the blog Mississippi Litigation Review, said bidding out contracts for attorneys is not the same as bidding out other types of contracts. "Your lawyer is not something you want to pick by the lowest bidder. It's not a construction contract," Thomas said. "It shouldn't be the cheapest lawyer, because that's not going to be best lawyer."