The State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee voted down an amendment Thursday that would have extended a proposed bill’s transparency requirements to lawyers who work for the state at an hourly pay rate.
The amendment to Assembly Bill 27 failed on a 3-5 party line vote.
The bill would require that information about contingency payments the state makes to law firms be posted to the Internet, as well as place caps on the amount of contingency fees such firms can collect.
The three Democratic members of the committee said Thursday they are not opposed to the transparency requirements of Assembly Bill 27, but questioned why only lawyers who work for contingency fees, not hourly rates, were included.
They argued that the state has only had one contingency fee case in its history, the tobacco settlement of the 1990s, yet it regularly hires lawyers for hourly rates. Why then, they asked, should the bill apply only to a payment arrangement that rarely occurs and not one that is common?
“This only happened once in the history of Wisconsin,” said Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie. “We are chasing ghosts.”
The Democrats raised questions about the hourly rate work done more recently by the firm of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, which helped Wisconsin lawmakers redraw legislative districts in 2011. Many questions have been raised over the firm’s work on redistricting. At one point, a federal court ordered the firm to pay about $17,500 in fines after finding it had filed frivolous motions to prevent documents related to the case from being released.
In response, Republican members of the committee said the fees charged in the tobacco case were particularly egregious, noting that three firms eventually recouped $75 million from the case, which came out to about $3,000 per hour worked.
Republicans agreed that lawyers who work for hourly rates should be subject to the same requirements, but said that should be done through a separate bill.
Democrats also proposed an amendment that would have eliminated the bill’s cap on contingency fees, which would place a maximum limit of $30 million on the fees that could be collected from a single case. State Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, argued the proposed change would allow the market to determine what the fees should be and said any fee arrangement would still be subject to approval by the governor.
The committee voted down that amendment, as well, also on a 3-5 party line vote.
Assembly Bill 27, sans amendments, then passed the committee on a 5-3 vote. To become law, it still must be approved by the full Assembly, Senate and signed by the governor.