Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry holds a press conference in February.

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

A fight between Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry over the handling of lawsuits against energy companies might make great political theater, but the dispute involves serious public policy questions that shouldn’t get lost in all the fireworks.

Several parishes have sued oil and gas companies, arguing that industrial canals and pipelines damaged the state’s coastline and speeded widespread erosion. Edwards appointed his top fundraiser, Natchitoches attorney Taylor Townsend, as head of a team of other politically connected lawyers to represent the state’s interests in the suits. The Edwards administration’s contract with its legal team appears to allow them to collect a big payout from the defendants — the deep-pocketed oil and gas companies — in the case of a settlement. 

State law gives the attorney general the authority to approve the appointment of all lawyers who represent the state, although many have argued that power is little more than a procedural formality. Landry is using the law to block Edwards’ hiring of his legal team, arguing that the team’s contract with the state is too broad, with payment provisions that violate state law.

Maybe all of this will end up in court, as Edwards and Landry engage in a legal case about the right way to handle another legal case. Sounds like a full-employment program for lawyers, doesn’t it?

Amid all the politics, some principles should prevail.

The coastline is a mess, and oil and gas companies bear at least some responsibility for the damage. A legal resolution of that legacy could help the coast rebound, but the state has a better chance of advancing its case if it acts with moral clarity and common purpose.

A transparent, competitive process to find the best lawyers to argue for Louisiana’s interests would have helped. Edwards took a different route, reinforcing suspicions that state government serves the favored few, not the people at large.

Resolving claims of coastal damage will be costly and complicated, even under the best of circumstances. Having the state’s top elected officials on the same page would be a good first step.