In Louisiana’s gubernatorial sweepstakes where opponents seek to stop the juggernaut GOP Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry candidacy, Republican state Sen. Sharon Hewitt put forth something that she hopes could help her muscle into the conservative space he has so effectively occupied.
Meeting with representatives from the energy industry, last week Hewitt said as governor she would disengage the state immediately from any litigation attacking energy producers over their past activities in coastal areas, criticizing this as a legally-unsound form of retroactive law-making and suggesting any actual violations under law go through the usual process of citation and adjudication. Some parishes have engaged counsel to sue firms on the basis that companies degraded land to cause problems such as flooding, despite companies having permission from the federal and state governments to engage legally in various acts such as dredging canals.
The state intervened in one of these suits, between several parishes and Freeport-McMoRan, to settle on behalf of four parishes dissatisfied with the arrangement, with that effort led by Landry. Conservatives in particular see such suits as little more than an unjustified money grab by certain parishes and trial lawyers that harms the economy and discourages economic development. Thus, the perception becomes Landry complicity with old-school jackpot justice.
In reality, the issue is much more complex. In the judgment of a number of lawyers Landry included, existing state statute leaves room for the state to intervene. Without the balky parishes’ consent, the deal wouldn’t happen, but Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards desperately wanted it to go through to pay off the trial lawyer lobby that backed him to the hilt in his elections. The only way to control this untrammeled greed was for Landry to use his prerogative as the state’s chief legal officer to act on behalf of the state, rather than defaulting to a sue-and-settle strategy in which Edwards’ Department of Natural Resources would cooperate.
Once putting himself in command on the issue, Landry could control the process to work out a less-objectionable deal. In particular in this instance, trial lawyers won’t get a cut out but could get a huge bite out of any subsequent ones, so they went along with this one in the hopes that it serves as a model for those in the future.
Better, he shaped it so that its final form and implementation depends upon actions by other parties, specifically the Legislature. Lawmakers can set up guard rails that limit lawyer fees and restrictions on proceeds’ use that would prevent beneficiary parishes from becoming cash machines for every spending idea under the sun. Best of all, nothing happens until the Legislature acts, and it has yet to do so and may never do so as long as Republican majorities skeptical of the scheme continue to rule the chambers.
However, this explanation of how Landry put the brakes on settlements akin to Carnival throws doesn’t reduce to a sound bite. As a result, Hewitt and his other conservative opponents likely will try to make a campaign issue about this, contrasting themselves as having nothing to do with and rejecting the litigation.
Of which Landry can neutralize if he adopts the same tactic as Hewitt: proclaim as governor he’ll drop the state making any parish sign onto such a suit and/or settlement, and thus these go back to the drawing board if his successor – especially the case if Republican Liz Murrill, one of his chief deputies, wins the race to replace him – likewise opts out, which given the objecting parishes likely ends any chance a suit ever gets to court. If you’re explaining you’re losing, but this way he can ignore barbs and point voters to that pledge.
Hewitt and other conservatives in the race have to find a way to pry conservatives away from Landry or he’ll win handily. They’ll need a lot more than her attempt on this issue in order to succeed.