A legacy, good or bad, is not erased overnight, nor a new one established in one day.
However much we might like to see an immediate end to the patronage and self-promotion that characterized the previous administration of the state Attorney General’s Office for five terms, vestiges are likely to endure for a while.
Nevertheless, we see encouraging signs.
In March, current Attorney General Patrick Morrisey fulfilled a campaign promise to reform the way the AG’s office hires private attorneys, introducing a competitive bidding process for outside counsel and creating a web page to publicize the terms of any agreements with them.
This was a big step in the right direction.
But Morrisey is not the only one addressing the issue.
Just this week, the state Supreme Court heard appeals from credit card companies targeted by Morrisey’s predecessor for alleged improprieties in their payment protection plans. The companies contend that the state attorney general should not be allowed to contract work out to private lawyers on a contingency-fee basis.
“In the past two decades, supreme courts in other states have written multiple opinions addressing the legality of similar arrangements; academics and the media have widely criticized the practice; and the Auditor of the West Virginia Legislature has seriously questioned its propriety,” the companies argue.
The companies say such practices are “tainted by at least three violations” of state law.
They point out that the state’s Government Ethics Act prohibits public employees from using their offices for their own private gain, that its Rules of Professional Conduct bar lawyers from representing clients with whom they may have conflicting interests, and that the Legislature has limited the AG to paying assistants exclusively from legislative appropriations.
If our supreme court agrees with their interpretations of West Virginia law, the dubious practice of hiring outside counsel to represent the state in court may come to an end.
This would be an even bigger step in the right direction.