Fees and ’personhood’ before Mississippi court

Published 2:51 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Mississippi Supreme Court tackles two issues in June that have sparked considerable political debate — abortion and legal fees.

On June 6, the Supreme Court will hear from attorneys for plaintiffs hoping to get the “personhood” amendment off the November ballot.

A Hinds County judge ruled last fall that the proposed “personhood” constitutional amendment seeking to define life as beginning at conception could be placed before voters in 2011.

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While abortion has been the central issue in debate about the initiative, opposing sides in the lawsuit have clashed over whether the “personhood” amendment oversteps the boundaries for proposed state constitutional amendments.

Opponents have argued that the initiative process can’t be used to change the state constitution’s bill of rights. They said the amendment would change the bill of rights by reshaping the definition of the term “person,” which is not specifically defined now. The judge said the initiative received more than the required number of signatures to be placed on the ballot and “the constitution recognizes the right of citizens to amend their constitution”

Mississippians are expected to handily approve the “personhood” amendment. Mississippi’s laws on abortion are among the most stringent in the country and have passed muster in a variety of court challenges.

Groups that support abortion rights — Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the state and national chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union — helped file the original lawsuit.

The issue would be on the Nov. 8 ballot — the same election in which voters will choose a governor, legislators and other state and county officials.

The lawyers’ fees issue is before the Supreme Court on June 8.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering is attacking a state law that allows the attorney general to hire lawyers from outside his office to handle legal cases.

A judge last year upheld $14 million in fees paid to two attorneys for handling a state lawsuit against telecommunications giant MCI.

Pickering contends the money should have gone to the state with the Legislature then appropriating money to pay the lawyers.

Joey Langston and Timothy Balducci in 2005 negotiated the legal fees separate from a settlement with MCI in a lawsuit they filed on behalf of the state. They were later disbarred after pleading guilty in an unrelated judicial bribery investigation.

The judge said state law allows the attorney general to hire outside lawyers. He said the lawyers received no funds from the state and the legal fees are “separate and apart” from what the state received in the MCI settlement.

The political feud over using private attorneys to represent the state in high-profile cases is nothing new. During the 1990s, then-Attorney General Mike Moore used several private attorneys, including his law school friend Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, to sue tobacco companies to recover the costs of treating sick smokers.

Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, hired Langston and Balducci to try to recoup unpaid taxes and interest stemming from the collapse of Clinton-based WorldCom, which emerged from bankruptcy as MCI in 2004 after a massive accounting fraud. In 2005, MCI agreed to pay the state $100 million and hand over real estate valued at several million.

The lawsuit over the legal fees was originally filed by Phil Bryant, a Republican now lieutenant governor and a candidate for governor. Pickering, also a Republican, picked up the fight after succeeding Bryant as state auditor in 2008.