CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Attorney General's Office is allowed to hire outside lawyers.
"The attorney general has common law authority to appoint special assistant attorneys general," the decision states.
Several private companies facing consumer-protection lawsuits filed complaints with the Supreme Court after judges in Mason and Wayne counties denied their request to disqualify the attorneys.
The companies claimed the private lawyers should be disqualified because of the way they're paid. The fee arrangements violate West Virginia ethics and professional conduct rules, the companies claimed.
The companies that complained include GlaxoSmithKline, which was sued in Wayne County over its marketing of the drug Avandi, and several financial firms, sued over their credit card service plans in Mason County.
The attorney general often hires attorneys to help with consumer protection cases.
The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court found that only an employee who receives a salary or wage is subject to the state Ethics Act, according to the order. An outside attorney is not an employee, the court found.
"In fact, the evidence shows the special assistant attorneys general may not receive any compensation for their legal services," the opinion states.
"The lawyers took the chance to spend their money to prosecute this action on behalf of West Virginia when they were not promised any hourly fee or the reimbursements of their expenses and costs. If they lost this case, the West Virginia taxpayers would not have to pay any money -- but the lawyers would have lost a substantial amount of money," the Supreme Court order stated, citing the Mason County decision.