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WASHINGTON - In recent years, state attorneys general have become increasingly powerful. Using lawsuits as a weapon, they have transferred billions of dollars from businesses and consumers to wealthy trial lawyers and political cronies.
Former New York Attorney General (and now Gov.) Eliot Spitzer, a frequent participant in such lawsuits, even boasted that he had “redefined the role of attorney general.”
Yet few have questioned claims by attorneys general like Spitzer that they are just looking out for the little guy when they bring lawsuits.
That may now change. “The Nation’s Top Ten Worst State Attorneys General,” a recent study I authored for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, takes a closer look at how attorneys general use their power to encroach on the authority of other branches of government and enrich their friends at society’s expense.
Spitzer, who was rated the third-worst state attorney general by the study, claims to be the scourge of wealthy “economic royalists.” But when rich trial lawyers demanded a staggering $625 million for bringing New York’s copycat lawsuit against the tobacco companies — at a rate of $13,000 an hour — Spitzer supported them, even though they began work only after tobacco companies had already given in to lawsuits brought by two other states. When a New York trial judge issued an order blocking the award on ethical grounds, Spitzer helped them get the order overturned based on a technicality.
Even worse is Connecticut’s Dick Blumenthal, rated the nation’s worst attorney general. Blumenthal was front and center in the scheme to create the Master Settlement Agreement, a nationwide tobacco deal that taxes low-income smokers to put $14 billion in the pockets of wealthy trial lawyers.
The lawyers he selected to profit from the deal included his own former law firm, a law school classmate, and the lawyer for the state’s governor, who was subsequently convicted of corruption in another matter.
In return for this deal, Blumenthal and other attorneys general dropped lawsuits they had filed against the big tobacco companies in the 1990s. Those suits claimed tobacco companies lied to smokers about the dangers of smoking. But smokers — not tobacco companies — pay for the deal, which is funded by a charge on every cigarette they buy.
Blumenthal justified his suit by claiming that it would help anti-smoking programs. But in many years, Connecticut spends nothing at all on preventing smoking, while much of the money has gone into lawyers’ pockets.
The second-worst state’s attorney general was Bill Lockyer of California, who recently became state treasurer. He turned a blind eye to campaign finance violations by political allies. Yet he meddled in other states’ affairs by suing out-of-state businesses, like Pepsi, which he sued over labels used on sodas in Mexico.
Lockyer repeatedly sought to stretch the legal definition of fraud to make it easier for lawyers to bring lawsuits. An appeals court rebuked him for that, noting that under his definition, a foolish consumer could sue for fraud after ordering a Danish pastry, solely because it was not baked in Denmark.
Historically, attorneys general performed valuable services like defending state agencies against lawsuits and giving legal advice. Today, they are more likely to bring lawsuits of their own, with greed and hunger for power, not public service, seeming to be behind many of those suits.