Thursday, September 25, 2014
Truly, I am in the wrong business
Ronnie Musgrove was more than a little peeved when I asked him how much money he was going to make from his education lawsuit.
“It’s obvious y’all aren’t interested in the substantive facts. You’re just interested in what the lawyers are going to be paid. Imagine that!” he petulantly responded at the Stennis Institute lunch on the 19th floor of the Capitol Towers building in downtown Jackson.
I never got an answer to my question. Instead, I got a long-winded discussion about how lawyers get nothing if they lose, how the state-sanctioned contingency formula works and how school districts can’t afford to pay lawyers by the hour.
Meanwhile, a lawyer sitting next to me, who no doubt would love to have Musgrove’s business, passed me a piece of paper with the number $28 million, a number I later confirmed.
TWENTY-EIGHT MILLION DOLLARS!!! Just for a lawsuit asking a chancery judge to define the meaning of the word “shall.” Truly, I am in the wrong business.
With all deference to Mr. Musgrove (who I can’t help but like), this is big news.
And that’s just representing 14 of the 148 school districts that have signed him up to get their $115 million in underfunding. If he reaches a settlement on the entire $1.5 billion in education underfunding, the legal fees could be in the hundreds of millions.
Musgrove defended himself by pointing out nobody has fussed about William Winter’s fees suing the drug companies.
There is a crucial difference here. Those fees don’t come straight from the governmental coffers, specifically the educational coffers. The money spent on the legal fees is money that won’t go to the schools.
It only takes six double-spaced pages to lay out Musgrove’s legal argument and only a few minutes for him to explain it. Musgrove’s bigger challenge has been getting school districts to join the lawsuit. Many are afraid of the political ramifications, locally and statewide, of challenging the dominant Republican Mississippi hierarchy.
The lawsuit is remarkably simple. In 2006, the Legislature strengthened the Mississippi Adequate Education law by adding the word “shall.” The Legislature gave itself three years to fully fund the program.
We all know what happened. The Great Recession arrived, the state budget collapsed and the funding levels never rose. Since then, the cumulative level of underfunding is $1.5 billion.
What’s amazing is that no one else thought of this. You’d think lawyers would be clawing over themselves to sign up school districts.
Musgrove, as former lieutenant governor and governor, just saw the big picture in a way no one else could or did. His years of experience paid off.
In his luncheon talk, Musgrove noted that often it’s up to the courts to get the hard things done.
“For them, the legislative leadership, the choice has been clear. They have not been willing to follow the law and commit to full funding. That’s what the law says.
“I have sat in the state Senate. I have sat in the lieutenant governor’s office. And I have sat in the governor’s chair. I understand power in state government better than a lot of other people. That doesn’t make me an expert, but I came to understand that all great change comes through the courts: integration, the Ayers lawsuit, the Chickasaw session, the 16th section reform, all came about because someone filed a lawsuit.”
It seems to me, this is a much better gig for Musgrove. He doesn’t have to worry about getting re-elected. He makes a gazillion more dollars than his salary as governor. And he gets to exercise real power. No wonder we are turning into a country governed by lawsuits. That’s where the money is!
One thing I do know about the law. There is enough wiggle room to interpret any phrase any way. Even the word “shall.” Remember President Bill Clinton’s response defending himself against perjury charges by saying “that depends on the definition of ‘is.’ ” The courts may be unwilling to challenge the executive and legislative branches on an issue that so clearly should be decided through the election box.
What really peeves Musgrove is Republican talk of a tax cut instead of finally fully funding education. Even our rainy day fund is now full. Problem is, he’s out of power.
That being said, it truly is embarrassing how leaders in government ignore their own laws. Our U.S. Congress is a prime example, but that’s the nature of power. What’s next, a massive class action lawsuit against Congress for exposing Americans to federal debt? What would the legal fees be on that lawsuit?
What a minute . . . never mind. Gotta go. I need to figure out how to get into law school before it’s too late.
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