When the branches of government — or even members within the same branch — are in conflict in Mississippi, it can create some odd legal arrangements.
That sort of situation is going on right now. The Republican-majority Legislature is fighting with Republican Gov. Tate Reeves over who has what authority over how state government spends its taxpayer-provided money.
Earlier this summer, the Legislature quickly put Reeves in his place when he tried to take control of the allocation of the $1.25 billion Mississippi was receiving in federal coronavirus relief.
That did not solve, though, all of the money fights between the executive and legislative branches.
In early July, Reeves vetoed parts of two legislative appropriations bills — including one dealing with divvying up the coronavirus relief money.
That prompted a lawsuit by House Speaker Philip Gunn and his second-in-command, Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White. They challenged whether the governor’s partial vetoes were constitutional.
A Hinds County chancellor ruled this month that Reeves overstepped. The governor plans to appeal her decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
No matter how the case turns out, it’s interesting to note that Reeves is being defended by the attorney general’s office, which is led by another Republican elected official, Lynn Fitch. However, the House leaders had to hire their own lawyers.
It wasn’t too long ago that Reeves didn’t have many friends in the Attorney General’s Office. When he was lieutenant governor and a Democrat, Jim Hood, was attorney general, Hood rarely took Reeves’ side.
In fact, in the months leading up to their 2019 gubernatorial contest, Hood assumed personal charge of an investigation into whether Reeves improperly tried to get a public road built to serve the gated community where the Republican lived at the time.
Because Mississippi elects its attorney general, this creates the potential for conflict. Although the attorney general is charged with serving as the lawyer for the state and all of its public officials and government entities, the attorney general has some discretion when his “clients” are on opposite sides of a legal dispute, or when the attorney general does not support what another public official is trying to do.
One of the more glaring examples of such a conflict came during the 1990s, when Kirk Fordice, the state’s first GOP governor since Reconstruction, sued Democratic Attorney General Mike Moore to try to stop Moore’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
Fordice, of course, had to hire outside counsel because of the obvious absurdity of Moore’s office representing both Moore and his nemesis.
It might make more sense to have Mississippi’s attorney general serve as a gubernatorial appointee, following the federal model. That way, the attorney general’s loyalties would be obvious and not hinge on his or her political affiliation or ambition.