PERRY/Sue now or sue later
Wednesday, September 3, 2014 1:00 AM
Former Governor turned trial-lawyer Ronnie Musgrove recently filed suit against the State of Mississippi with 14 school districts signed up as plaintiffs in an attempt to force the state to retroactively fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). The Associated Press estimates Musgrove and his lawyer colleagues could reap as much as $27.8 million themselves in the process.
One expects a statement like, "It is disappointing to me that Ronnie Musgrove is using education as a pretense to get rich at the expense of the Mississippi taxpayers," from Republican Governor Phil Bryant.
But published reports show Bryant isn't alone in this criticism.
Claiborne Barksdale, education funding advocate and retired director of the Barksdale Reading Institute said, "Millions of dollars will go into Ronnie's and other lawyers' pockets instead of into schools. The irony is striking."
"Even if it's successful, this lawsuit will take millions of dollars from Mississippi's schoolchildren and give it to lawyers," said Patsy Brumfield, spokesperson for Better Schools = Better Jobs.
Nancy Loome, executive director of education funding advocacy group The Parents Campaign, warned Musgrove's plan could lead to the end of MAEP, the funding scheme he promoted as lieutenant governor. "The response of the Legislature very well could be to dismantle MAEP and then we would be left with nothing. It's in statute and the Legislature could change the statute," Loome told the Associated Press.
In his Neshoba County Fair speech, former Governor William Winter said he opposed Musgrove's plan as well.
Musgrove must be thinking, "with friends like these, who needs Phil Bryant?"
Barksdale, Brumfield, Loome and Winter have not suddenly jumped onto the anti-trial lawyer bandwagon. They oppose Musgrove's plan because they support an initiative-referendum project which would amend the Mississippi Constitution in a way they believe better meets their education funding goals.
Their amendment would change Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution, which currently reads, "The Legislature shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may provide."
They would amend the Mississippi Constitution to enshrine education as a fundamental right, remove the Legislature's power to structure education in Mississippi, add Constitutional authority to the education system rather than simply schools and empower a judge to enforce the provision.
Their revised version of Section 201 would read, "To protect each child's fundamental right to educational opportunity, the State shall provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools. The chancery courts of this State shall have the power to enforce this section with appropriate injunctive relief." (I'll be looking more at this plan in a future column.)
But for now, these two camps seem to be disagreeing over whether to sue Mississippi now, or sue Mississippi later. Either scenario removes budget decisions from the people's elected legislators and hands authority to a judge.
The MAEP Legal Group, led by Musgrove, also includes, as reported by the Associated Press, "Dustin Childers, the son of Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Travis Childers and Casey Langston Lott, the nephew of disbarred lawyer Joey Langston. The pair works for the Langston and Lott law firm in Booneville."
This isn't Musgrove's first bite at the apple in contingency fee litigation involving the state. While this time he is suing Mississippi, in 2011 he won a lawsuit on behalf of Mississippi through a contract with Attorney General Jim Hood.
In October 2011, Hood announced settlements involving average wholesale prices with three pharmaceutical companies which would provide more than $25 million to Mississippi. Before the legislature could begin spending, then Governor Haley Barbour warned of the real result.
Barbour wrote to legislators, "The attorney general gave former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove's law firm, which handled the litigation, a fee of $5,459,000. That does leave a balance of just above $20 million, but the State is not entitled to all that money. We cannot expect $20 million to be available for us to spend, as the federal government is entitled to at least 82.03 percent of that amount. Under the law, the federal government is entitled not only to its share of the recovery but also to half, or $2,729,500, of the attorneys fees Hood gave to Musgrove's firm. Therefore, according to Medicaid's best estimates, the State may actually retain for appropriation as little as $907,807.70. Of course, this means former Gov. Musgrove and his law firm will get more money out of the lawsuit ($5,459,000) than the State of Mississippi and its taxpayers receive - as much as six times more."
Whether it's sue you now or sue you later, lawyers involved always make money.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.