Legal fees growing for taxpayers in state’s attempt to takeover airport

By ANTHONY WARREN,

More than three years after the suit was filed, legal fees continue to mount up for taxpayers in the Jackson airport takeover case.

The city and the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA) filed suit to stop the state from implementing SB 2162, the measure commonly referred to as the airport takeover bill.

The action would do away with JMAA and replace it with a regional board, essentially wresting control of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport from the city.

The bill was passed during the 2016 session, with the initial suit being filed the same year.

To date, the state and metro-area entities have spent more than $815,000 on the case.

JMAA has paid $473,881 in legal fees. Representing the agency is the Phelps Dunbar Law Firm. JMAA is being billed between $245 to $375 an hour, according to data received from an open record request. 

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and authors of SB 2162, Sens. Josh Harkins, Dean Kirby, Nickey Browning, Philip Moran and Chris Caughman, are being represented by the Butler Snow and Wise Carter law firms, as well as the Mississippi attorney general’s office.

So far, the state has paid the two private firms $233,987 in legal fees, at a rate of $175 to $375 an hour, according to Laura Hipp, spokesperson for Reeves.

The state pays no additional fees for representation by the attorney general.

Two counties have also incurred legal bills as a result of the takeover bid.

Rankin County’s legal costs currently total $81,641.25. The county is represented by the Brunini law firm, as well as Craig Lawson Slay, attorney for the board of supervisors, at an hourly rate of $215.

Madison County’s legal fees total $24,738. The county is represented by Katie Bryant Snell, who is currently attorney for the board of supervisors. She is charging between $100 and $140 an hour.

The city of Jackson is using its in-house attorneys. However $840.95 has been paid to Brooks Court Reporting.

Gov. Phil Bryant is represented by Whitney Holliday Lipscomb, attorney for the office of the governor, and Justin Matheny, with the Mississippi Attorney General’s office at no costs.

The case has churned on for more than three years. Much of the time so far has been spent in the discovery phase, with JMAA attempting to find out the motives behind the takeover legislation.

Attorneys for the authority had sought all communications between lawmakers and third parties related to the takeover, as well as a “privilege log” detailing those lawmakers’ conversations with other lawmakers and government officials.

Recently, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked that effort, saying that legislators did not have to release that information or comply with the lower court’s requirement of a “privilege log.”

A major component of the city’s case is that the takeover is racially motivated.

SB 2162, authored by a five white Republicans, would replace JMAA with a regional board, with members appointed by the state and by the surrounding counties.

Under the legislation, both Madison and Rankin counties would receive seats on the board. Both counties are majority white.

Attorneys for the airport subpoenaed lawmakers’ communications to determine whether or not race was, indeed, a factor.

Lawmakers, though, refused to comply, saying any communications were “protected by legislative privilege.”

The district court ruled the bill’s authors waived legislative privilege on any documents shared with third-party individuals and required that those documents to be released.

However, the district magistrate did rule that communications shared only with government officials were still protected.

The Fifth Circuit ruled that “the district court abused its discretion” in requiring lawmakers to release the information.

The circuit also dismissed count seven in the case, which argued that SB 2162 denies the city of Jackson, its citizens and the plaintiffs equal protection under the law.

Jackson and JMAA argued the state was taking away the right of its residents to control Jackson-Evers via their elected officials. Jackson-Evers is owned by the city and is managed by the JMAA board of directors.

The five-member panel is made up of members appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council.

The takeover has been temporarily blocked by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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