Opinion: Transparency for private attorney contracting

Wendy Block

One of our government’s founding principles — and one of its highest ideals — is accessibility. Accessibility so the public can make its voice heard, shape a government best suited to serving the people, and hold its representatives — both elected and unelected — accountable for their actions.

Now more than ever, it is critical we hold our leaders to this ideal and make it clear it is their duty to serve their constituents, not their own political careers or their close friends.

Unfortunately, some states and jurisdictions make the administration of justice more difficult than it should be, and Michigan is no exception. Too often, our attorneys general will pursue massive litigation — occasionally on weak foundations — with the intent of farming the work out to attorney friends or donors on a contractual contingency-fee basis. In turn, these people are awarded massive fees should they successfully reach a settlement or achieve a favorable court decision. Such nepotism is made worse by the fact that the contracted attorneys potentially walk away with millions, while the residents they are supposedly representing see absolutely nothing for themselves.

This is not a new trend. It has happened before with the now-infamous tobacco litigation of the 1990s — and it is on the upswing once again as trial attorneys use our nation’s opioid crisis as a new money-making opportunity. Make no mistake, these cases are disguised as public service, but are about money, not justice. It is worth noting that these decisions are often made without the oversight of the legislature, the branch nominally responsible for such key decisions involving the state’s purse strings.

Block writes: "Leonard, as Speaker of the Michigan House, has been a strong advocate for a fair and balanced legal system in our state."

Just in the past year, such arrangements have made headlines across America. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has come under fire for handing off the state’s opioid litigation to outside counsel Whitten Burrage in Oklahoma City and Nix, Patterson, and Roach, based out of Texas. This is notable, as both Reggie Whitten and Michael Burrage gave the maximum amount of $20,000 to Hunter’s election campaign, as have members of their families. Such arrangements — which can yield beyond tens of millions of dollars for the firms involved — surely serves little public interest.

Fortunately for Michigan, we have a candidate for attorney general who is dedicated to transparency. Recently, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), a close ally of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce on legal reform, announced Tom Leonard has voiced his support for a number of measures to ensure political alliances stay out of our justice system.

Leonard, like the Michigan Chamber, supports disclosing contracts with outside counsel representing the state, being open to competitive bidding for the contract, giving the legislature full oversight over any contractual agreements with outside counsel. Furthermore, Leonard expressed support for Michigan pursuing Transparency in Private Attorney Contracting (TiPAC) legislation, just as so many other states like Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin have done in the past.

An attorney general’s office should function with transparency and accessibility. They occupy a unique position in that many are elected through the political process, but they need to keep personal politics out of their office. They must administer justice equally, efficiently, and in such a way that best represents the people of their state, not their attorney allies.

For too long, we have allowed the trial bar to manipulate our principles of justice and our ideals of an open and transparent government. Moving forward, it is absolutely critical we elect leadership who will not fall to persuasion or be swayed by campaign donations, but those who prove themselves to be of high value.

Leonard, as Speaker of the Michigan House, has been a strong advocate for a fair and balanced legal system in our state. If elected, he will ensure our justice system operates in a fair, apolitical manner.

Wendy Block is the vice president of business advocacy at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.