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'Judicial hellhole' reformers praise Morrisey

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A national organization that ranks West Virginia as the second worst "judicial hellhole" in America is raving about Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The American Tort Reform Association has praised Morrisey's plan to require private lawyers to bid on state legal work that's supervised by the Attorney General's Office. The proposed policy also limits the contingency fees that outside attorneys can collect. Morrisey is soliciting public comment on the policy.

"These actions are positive steps toward improving the reputation of West Virginia's civil justice system," said Sherman "Tiger" Joyce, president of the tort reform group, which targets states and cities for alleged anti-business legal climates.

At a news conference last week, Morrisey released a 279-page report chronicling his first 100 days in office. The attorney general gave himself a B-plus grade, citing the new outside counsel hiring policy as a significant accomplishment.

Morrisey, who defeated longtime West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw in the November election, sharply criticized McGraw's "no-bid" hiring of outside lawyers.

Joyce, whose group has frequently targeted McGraw, said the informal agreements led to private lawyers "receiving millions of dollars in fees" without adequate explanation of "how much time or effort was spent litigating the case." In the past, Joyce's group has accused McGraw of operating a "pay-for-play" system -- hiring outside lawyers who donated to McGraw's campaign.

"This practice led the public and the business community to question whether litigation brought by the state ... was driven by a private lawyer's interest in collecting lucrative fees, or fair, impartial application of the law," Joyce wrote in comments sent to Morrisey's office.

Joyce suggested two changes to Morrisey's new hiring policy.

Morrisey's policy would apply to contracts with outside lawyers hired after April 15. Joyce said Morrisey should disclose financials details and other information about contracts with outside lawyers hired before that date.

Joyce also recommended that Morrisey's office limit the number of private lawyers on a "pre-approved list" who would represent the state on cases that require a specific expertise. Joyce said future West Virginia attorneys general could misuse the list to circumvent the formal bidding process for hiring outside lawyers.

"For example, a future attorney general might develop a pre-approved list of private lawyers to represent the state in any matter involving consumer protection laws," Joyce wrote. "The scope of potential litigation falling within this area of law is extraordinarily broad and would provide wide discretion to choose a firm based on factors other than expertise or value."

The American Tort Reform Association has cited West Virginia as a "judicial hellhole" because the group believes the state has a legal system that penalizes businesses and hurts West Virginia's economy. The group's members include the American Medical Association and numerous tobacco, energy, insurance and drug companies.

Joyce did not say whether Morrisey's hiring changes would prompt the tort reform group to remove the "judicial hellhole" label. But Joyce praised Morrisey for supporting other legislative reforms -- such as returning lawsuit settlement monies to the state's general revenue account.

"During the short period of time in which you have served as attorney general," Joyce wrote to Morrisey, "West Virginia has made significant progress in the matter in which the state conducts its civil litigation."

The national tort reform group ranks California as the No. 1 "judicial hellhole." The organization advocates for legal system changes that would limit the amount of damages people can recover in lawsuits against corporations. West Virginia has made the group's "judicial hellhole" list every year since 2002, the year the list was created.

Morrisey's office is accepting comments on the outside lawyer hiring policy through May 31. The policy would take effect July 6.

"Most comments we have heard thus far have been very supportive of this new policy and the transparency it offers," said Beth Ryan, a spokeswoman for Morrisey's office. "Our desire is to ensure this process is open and efficient and does not unduly burden any agency."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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