JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday in two cases that legal fees paid to private lawyers to represent the state are public funds.
Justices said because the money belongs to the public, it should've been paid out to the lawyers from the attorney general's contingent fund or from other money appropriated to the attorney general.
A Hinds County judge in 2010 ruled the $14 million in fees paid to two attorneys for handling a state lawsuit against telecommunications giant MCI was properly handled.
Another Hinds County judge ruled the same in another case in 2010 involving $10 million in fees paid to lawyers for handling a state lawsuit against computer software maker Microsoft.
The Supreme Court rejected arguments from Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and the attorneys involved in the cases that the fees were the property of the lawyers, not the state.
The justices also rejected arguments from Republican state Auditor Stacey Pickering that attorneys' fees should be paid to the state treasury and then appropriated by the Legislature. But the justices did say the fees are public funds, a ruling Pickering had sought in the litigation.
"This is a victory for open government, for the taxpayers of Mississippi," Pickering said during a conference call with reporters. "This will help put an end to attorneys negotiating their own fees, their own compensation, in backroom deals."
Pickering said his position has never been that the attorneys shouldn't be compensated, but he said it should be done in a transparent way that complies with the law. Pickering said the case will be sent back to a lower court to decide if the attorneys should return the money so it can be paid through the attorney general's office.
Hood did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The Supreme Court said the settlement funds paid by MCI and Microsoft belonged to the state. The court said state law clearly "mandates that outside counsel retained by the attorney general can be paid only from the attorney general's 'contingent fund' or from funds appropriated to the attorney general by the Legislature."
"That is where it must be paid — and distributed," wrote Presiding Justice Jess Dickinson. "The statute does not allow direct payment of attorney fees."
Justice Leslie King said the law firms had a valid contract with the state and were entitled to their fees being paid from the settlement.