Conduct unbecoming

by The West Virginia Record |
Oct. 26, 2007, 10:53am

Are state attorneys general ready for reform?

A newly proposed state AG "Code of Conduct" begs the question, aspiring to bring some ethics and order to what's become the "Wild West" of government lawyering.

The Code was released this week by the Institute for Legal Reform, also the parent of this newspaper.

Among its provisions: Don't "initiate unwarranted investigations or litigation," "refrain from public communications that could prejudice a case," and "open the hiring of any outside counsel to public scrutiny."

That the Code reads like the reverse rap sheet of West Virginia AG Darrell McGraw didn't come as much of a surprise. Still, it was too much for his top aide, Fran Hughes, who dismissed the concept as a "red herring" promoted by "out-of-state corporations."

"It's an attempt to affect the political process," she deftly observed.

Indeed it is. Yet that a group would feel compelled to propose guidelines that sound so slam-dunk sensible is a cause for alarm. The obvious, apparently, still needs to be said.

The truth is that state attorney general offices encourage reckless behavior we'd never tolerate from lawyers working for the U.S. Attorney or a state prosecutor. The worst of them, like McGraw, have systemically hijacked their posts, turning them into taxpayer-funded, police-empowered, ambition-fueled plaintiff's firms. We couldn't imagine, for instance, a district attorney allowing private lawyers to hunt criminals on contingency, yet for many attorneys general, this approach has become standard practice.

For an example of how things are supposed to be, we need only look eastward across the border to Virginia. First term AG Bob McDonnell is concentrating his efforts on protecting children from Internet-trolling sex offenders, not skewering "out of state corporations" and aiming to extort multi-million dollar settlements out of them.

Engrossed by their own misguided, self-serving activism, too many AGs have proven derelict in the actual duties of their office. They're supposed to be enforcing state law as willed by the people, not inventing new theories of corporate liability as requested by the trial lawyers.

Without standards, anything goes.

And so it has.

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