Ala. attorney general strips prison system lawyers of power

ADOC "is in the process of transitioning all litigation matters from the department’s attorneys to attorneys in the AGO"

By Ivana Hrynkiw

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Attorney General’s Office has removed the power of the state’s prison system lawyers to litigate on behalf of their agency, the latest in a series of public disagreements between the agencies.

According to a statement from the Alabama Department of Corrections, Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office told the ADOC that he “intends to remove the Assistant Attorney General status” of the prison system’s six in-house attorneys. That status allows the lawyers to litigate on behalf of the state.

The ADOC “is in the process of transitioning all litigation matters from the department’s attorneys to attorneys in the AGO.”

ADOC Commissioner John Hamm released a statement about the move. “We will not speculate about the impact the AG’s decision will have on the ADOC, but I am confident in the ability of our Legal Division to protect the interests of this department throughout this transition,” he said.

“We will continue to focus on the critical mission of the ADOC – to provide public safety through the secure confinement, rehabilitation, and reentry of offenders.”

The prison system is working with the AG’s Office to “determine what this change means in practice going forward,” said a spokesperson.

Court records in the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections show that, on April 6, two ADOC lawyers withdrew from the case. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall signed off on those withdrawal notices. The same day, the same two ADOC lawyers were pulled from working on another federal case involving the prison system and its handling of mental health treatment.

The following day, three other private lawyers who were already working on the DOJ case—William Lunsford, Matthew Reeves, and Lynette Potter—updated their contact information in the case file, noting they joined the law firm of Butler Snow. Those three attorneys had been working for the firm Maynard Cooper and Gale.

Lunsford, Reeves, and another Butler Snow employee Kenneth Steely, will continue their work on the mental health lawsuit.

The AG’s Office declined to comment on the move to remove ADOC lawyers from litigation. The governor’s office directed questions at the ADOC.

The State Finance Department did not return requests for comment about the impact the move will have on the state budget.

A 2010 executive order from then-Gov. Bob Riley requires the governor’s office to approve all outside legal contracts for state agencies. That order said all legal contracts are limited to $195 an hour, unless the governor approves an “extraordinary circumstance” and makes an exception.

Lawyers who work for the ADOC are paid state employees, and the money for their salaries comes through the General Fund.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s office declined to comment on if the state would approve additional contracts for the three Butler Snow attorneys or demand the ADOC attorneys be reinstated to continue their work on the case. She also did not comment if the Butler Snow attorneys would be subject to the pay raise under “extraordinary circumstances.”

According to the latest quarterly report from the ADOC, at least 19 new civil lawsuits were filed against the department during October, November, and December 2022. Of those cases, according to the report, the state paid nothing to defend the ADOC. Several cases noted the money was paid by the Department of Finance’s Division of Risk Management, while others were handled by ADOC’s in-house lawyers. General fund money pays for the agency’s attorneys, the report said.

And of the 19, a dozen were handled by in-house lawyers and seven were handled by the AG’s Office or outside counsel.

The move is the latest in a series of spats between the two agencies. Earlier this year, Marshall sued the prison system and Hamm for implanting an early-release law, enacted by the state Legislature and signed by the governor, claiming the department didn’t properly notify victim’s families.

In 2022, representatives from Marshall’s office said in a court hearing that the state was close to being ready to implement executions using nitrogen gas; but, Hamm said in an affidavit filed soon after that the department wasn’t ready, and wouldn’t be ready by the date mentioned by the AG’s Office.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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