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Suit adds to growing conservative doubts about Caldwell

While the jackpot justice quest by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East is well known, another such spin of the wheel by a school district and teacher union threatens to land Atty. Gen. Buddy Caldwell in hot electoral water.

Months ago, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the Minimum Foundation Program could not be used to fund the Louisiana Scholarship Program that paid for education at private schools for qualifying students. As part of that ruling, it engaged in a bit of judicial activism by redefining the Constitution to allow resolutions as legislative instruments to be treated as laws for procedural purposes, which in essence meant the resolution to fund the MFP of last year was invalid. Because of another series of events, this meant the formula reverted back to that of 2010, using the logic of the ruling.

Grubbing for funds, the St. John the Baptist School Board decided to file suit to get extra funds, because in these previous years no automatic 2.75 percent funding boost was contained as part of the formula, unlike 2010. But the Court seemed to anticipate somebody might be thinking along those lines and inserted some language that it could use to wiggle out of declaring some extra $200 million in spending must occur on education, contrary to the will of the Legislature and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Thus, this suit seems doomed.

But what’s grabbing attention about it now is that the school board contracted for the same hired guns that unions used in the prior suit on a contingency basis, which could lead to a huge $20 million payday for the mouthpieces but is illegal in most cases in Louisiana when the object is a government. And that upsets enough people as to want Caldwell to do something about it, even if just to deplore this publicly.

Problem is, he’s done everything he could, legal or otherwise, to introduce a legal regime that accepts these arrangements. Not only in 2010 did he try to change state law to allow the AG’s office to use contingency contracts, he allowed the SLFPA-E to enter into one using a creative argument that as long as the fee fell below what would be charged by a regular contract, it was all right. And, it seems, during the period he was trying to get the Legislature to retract the prohibition, he was writing up such arrangements out of his own office. (The invaluable The Hayride provides an excellent summary and links laying out the political machinations behind it all.)

So, Caldwell has sought political cover by inviting opponents to some meeting presumably where he will try to lay out a legal case justifying the contingency tactic, even though it’s unsure whether he has authority over a local government’s ability to engage in legal contracts (R.S. 49:258 seems to insulate political subdivisions below the state level). Except that perhaps his foremost critic of the practice, Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, wouldn’t even give him the time of day on this request. And this came on the heels of former Republican Rep. Jeff Landry’s critique of Caldwell’s contracting that he says rewards favorites of his.

This has led to speculation that Landry might challenge Caldwell, and threatens the balancing act Caldwell has tried to preserve. Since his switch to the GOP in 2011, as an incumbent Republican, Caldwell has held a default status where those characteristics were enough to hold off any Democrat who might challenge him. But throw a conservative Republican into the fray, and Caldwell becomes considerably weakened electorally.

Whether Landry is the guy that could do it is another thing. Before being reapportioned out of Congress, he had practiced as a lawyer but never as a prosecutor (although almost all of the AG’s job deals with civil actions). The three previous holders of the office had considerable experience on the judicial side of government, and even William Guste as a practicing attorney had stints on local and state government boards dealing with crime. One must go back over a half century to find an AG without this kind of experience. Also, it’s unknown how much political good will Landry lost by his going down fighting against fellow GOP Rep. Charles Boustany when they were thrown into the same district that could damage a future run for office.

Regardless, Caldwell has begun upsetting enough conservatives that his job now must be classified as being threatened. They can point to the contingency issue as well as apparently cozy relations with trial lawyers, refusal to back the rule of law when necessary, politicization of the office,  and a penchant for supporting jackpot justice not just with the SLFPA-E that are things likely enough to get up the dander of more conservatives that just Landry. He had a little more than $400,000 in campaign coffers at the end of 2012 – but the incumbent he defeated in 2007, Charles Foti, in 2004 had twice that. By many metrics, he’s vulnerable.

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