Iowa House proposal would limit attorney general’s discretion in lawsuit settlements

Bill goes to full House Appropriations Committee on Thursday

James Q. Lynch
Published: March 19 2014 | 4:05 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:51 am in

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller opposes legislation to require that he get approval from fellow elected officials before accepting settlements, such as a multistate lawsuit in 2012 that resulted in a $50 billion in relief to borrowers nationwide.

A House Appropriations subcommittee approved a $728 million justice systems budget that included language to require the attorney general to get the approval of the state’s Executive Council before agreeing to a settlement. The council includes the governor, secretaries of state and agriculture, treasurer and auditor. The attorney general advises the council.

“That’s one of the basic powers of the office,” said Miller, who did not attend the meeting.

However, Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, argued that an attorney should have to consult with his client before accepting a settlement.

“An attorney does not get to make decisions on behalf of his client,” Baltimore said. In these cases, he said, “the client is the people of Iowa.”

He cited the example of the National Mortgage Settlement with the country’s five largest mortgage servicers. Miller was the lead attorney on the case that involved 48 other state attorneys general.

Miller drafted the consent decree to give himself complete discretion and place himself in a position to develop policies for implementing the $50 billion settlement, Baltimore said.

“That’s not the job the attorney general,” he said. “Policy-making is up to the legislature and executive branch.”

Miller did come to the Legislature with policy legislation, but at that point, Baltimore said, lawmakers had little choice but to accept legislation complying with the court order.

Democrats on the subcommittee sought to strike that language, arguing the requirement is unreasonable.

“He’s a constitutional officer. This is a core function of his office,” said Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, a former employee of Miller’s office. The requirement might undermine the attorney general, she added, and doubted the Executive Council would have time to give proposed settlements the same level of review as they get from the attorney general and his staff.

Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, said that although Miller’s client is the people of Iowa, they have elected the attorney general to represent them.

Baltimore allowed that the relationship is “a little different than the typical attorney-client situation, “but gives the client a voice in settlements and what policies will be created.”

He called the measure a “responsible accountability feature.”

In the end, Anderson’s amendment to strike the language was defeated on a voice vote and the budget was approved on a party line vote.

It now goes to the full House Appropriations Committee Thursday.

Subcommittee Chairman Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, said he’s certain the language will not be in the bill when it comes back from the Senate.

 

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