Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch has contracted to pay a D.C. law firm and two out-of-state public relations firms up to $558,000 in her efforts to defend Mississippi laws seeking to ban or limit access to abortion.
Scott Stewart, Fitch’s solicitor general, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday that the 1973 Roe v. Wade high court court ruling guaranteeing abortion rights should be overturned. Stewart, a former Department of Justice appointee of former President Donald Trump, was tabbed as solicitor general by Fitch earlier this year. She created the post of solicitor general in 2020 soon after her election.
Fitch sat by Stewart’s side at the counsel’s table during the arguments.
Fitch contracted with the law firm last year and the PR firms this summer. The contracts say the state will pay up to $558,000 for the work, but could be amended to pay more. The contract with the law firm has already been amended from its original $300,000 cap to $450,000.
The contracts are with:
- Schaerr Jaffe, a Washington, D-C.-based law firm, for up to $450,000. The firm is charging the state $385 an hour for work by partners, $285 an hour for associates and $125 an hour for paralegals. So far, Mississippi taxpayers have paid the firm $369,537 from April 2020 through early August, according to state records.
- Debbee Heller Hancock, a Birmingham-based public relations consultant, for up to $60,000. The firm is being paid up to $5,000 a month to “provide assistance in developing messaging, drafting written and graphic materials, working with reporters and others … related to AGO litigation.” Hancock had been paid $24,031 from June through mid October.
- Becky Rogness, a Alexandria, Va.-based public relations consultant, for up $48,000. The firms is being paid up to $4,000 a month for the same services listed in the Hancock contract. Rogness had been paid $18,000 from July through early November.
The contracts with the public relations consultants for now run from June 2021 to June 2022. The contract with Schaerr Jaffee is for February 2020 until Feb. 28, 2023. The contracts could be extended.
In addition to payments to private entities, public employees in Fitch’s office, such as Stewart, also are working to defend the anti-abortion laws.
Michelle Williams, Fitch’s chief of staff, said it is “perfectly legitimate” to hire the public relations firms to help with the litigation since the Attorney’s General Office has only one in-house communications person. She said, “The AGO brought on two communications individuals on contract for a total of $108,000 annually. We have one person on staff full-time doing communications.”
Since Fitch took office in January 2020, she has fired two communications directors.
Williams said Schaerr Jaffe did not do any work on the case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. She said it was working on another abortion case that was being heard in the lower courts and was put on hold while the Supreme Court decided whether it, as Fitch is requesting, will overturn Roe v. Wade.
She said only attorneys within the AG’s office worked on the Supreme Court arguments.
“We are not a very big Attorney General’s Office compared to other attorneys general,” William said.
The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case before the Supreme Court centers around Mississippi’s 2018 law that banned abortions after 15 weeks. That law was prevented from going into effort by lower federal courts, based on Roe v. Wade and on other rulings by the Supreme Court.
After the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Fitch argued that not only should the 15-week ban be upheld, but that Roe v. Wade in its totality should be overturned. Since the Legislature passed the 15-week ban, it also has enacted a ban on abortions after six weeks. That is part of what is being argued in the lower court and what is on hold while the Supreme Court rules. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the six-week ban would be moot. The state has in place a 2007 trigger law that would make abortion illegal in Mississippi if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Shaerr Jaffe, LLP is a self-described “boutique law firm specializing in high-profile trial and appellate litigation.” The firm has handled hundreds of Supreme Court proceedings and have won eight cases before the high court.
Partner Gene Schaerr served in the George H.W. Bush White House as associate counsel to the president and previously clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Antonin Scalia. He clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit for then-Judge Kenneth Starr. Partner Erik S. Jaffe clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Court of Appeals Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg.
The contract with the AG’s office said Schaerr Jaffe will “review relevant documents, meet with any and all officials, witnesses and representatives as deemed necessary.”
Both public relations consultants have deep roots in Republican politics and have been advocates for conservative social issues, such as opposing abortions. But Debbee Heller Hancock wrote an essay urging Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate to vote to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Republicans often criticized Fitch’s Democratic predecessor, Jim Hood, for his use of outside counsel, which he normally hired on a contingency basis, meaning they did not get paid unless they prevailed in court.
-- Article credit to Geoff Pender and Bobby Harrison of Mississippi Today --