CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday the state Attorney General can hire private attorneys to help with state cases.
The 5-0 ruling goes further: It overturns a previous high court decision that limited the office's ability to hire outside lawyers.
"It is arguably one of the most important decisions outlining the powers of the Office of the Attorney General in the past century," Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a new release.
"It reaffirms the role and common law powers of the Office as guaranteed through the Constitution and strikes down a bad decision written decades ago that unnecessarily limited the Attorney General's ability to perform his job."
The decision stems from two lawsuits filed by several private companies that were the subject of consumer protection cases brought by former Attorney General Darrel McGraw. The plaintiffs -- mostly credit card companies and the health care entity GlaxoSmithKline -- said it was illegal and unethical for the Office of the Attorney General to hire private attorneys.
Lower courts ruled the office could use private attorneys. The companies appealed those rulings to the Supreme Court.
Justice Robin Davis wrote the court's opinion. Init, she said the lower courts did not use the correct rationale, but were correct in their rulings.
A large part of the private companies argument hinged on the idea that the Attorney General did not have the authority to appoint or pay fees to special assistant attorneys general. In ruling the Attorney General can appoint and pay these special assistants, justices overturned a 1982 decision concerning "common law" powers.
"In the final analysis, it is the common law authority of the Attorney General that permitted that Office to appoint the special assistant attorneys general in these cases and to provide for a method of possible recovery of attorney's fees," the opinion states.
Common law are rules or practices that fall outside of what is prescribed by the Legislature, Constitution or other statutory law, explained West Virginia State Bar President Harry Deitzler, who was not involved in the case.
The idea of "common law" is based on practices adopted by earlier settlers of the country from the English courts system. Simply put, common law is the set of things that "just make sense," Deitzler said.