Incompetent as Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg may be, the Legislature isn’t ready to throw him completely overboard. House Bill 1004 would have allowed the Legislature to outsource its legal needs to counsel other than the Attorney General—i.e., to someone who can actually argue and win a case. HB 1004 passed the House 52–15, but it hit the buzz saw in Senate State Affairs yesterday. Senator Brock Greenfield (R-2/Clark) stripped everything from HB 1004 but permission to hire outside counsel to handle redistricting lawsuits. And then the Governor sent one of her Executive Branch lobbyists to say HB 1004 would cost the state more money:
Justin Bell, a Pierre lawyer whose regular job is as a private attorney, appeared on behalf of the state Office of Risk Management and spoke as an opponent.
The office oversees what’s known as the PEPL fund that provides defense and liability coverage for state entities and employees.
Bell suggested the PEPL fund could face higher re-insurance rates if the outside-lawyer bill became law. That’s because the legislator would have two lawyers defending her or him and there wouldn’t be clarity over the strategy.
Bell said the legislation also didn’t designated who would pay the outside-lawyer’s fees or the damages, and it didn’t say who would choose the outside lawyer if one had to be hired between meetings of the Legislature’s Executive Board [Bob Mercer, “South Dakota Lawmakers Will Reply upon Only State’s Attorney General to Defend Laws,” KELO-TV, 2020.03.04].
HB 1004 prime sponsor Speaker Steven Haugaard took a little umbrage at the Governor’s ability to hire an outside lawyer to push her agenda… but of course there’s a difference between hiring a lawyer to lobby in committee and seeking outside counsel to carry out the Attorney General’s constitutional duty to represent the state and defend its laws in court. Senate State Affairs voted 6–3 to kill HB 1004. Only Senators Greenfield, Joshua Klumb, and my own transparently self-contradictory Al Novstrup voted to have the Legislature spend more taxpayer dollars to reach beyond the constitution and hire outside lawyers to make up for the incompetence of the man they picked to be the state’s top attorney.