Decision To Come Feb. 20 In Dispute On Louisiana Opioid Suit

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A state district judge said Friday that he will decide in February whether Gov. John Bel Edwards or Attorney General Jeff Landry should have control over Louisiana's lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, the latest clash over the limits of the two men's authority.

The Democratic governor and Republican attorney general have been unable to reach a compromise over how to handle litigation accusing drug companies of worsening opioid abuse in Louisiana. Each side accuses the other of playing politics with the lawsuit.

"I think the governor's looking out to be able to maybe raise his particular profile. It may be because he wants to diminish our authority," Landry said.

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Edwards' chief lawyer Matthew Block said the attorney general's main goal isn't combatting opioid abuse, but asserting control. He said the governor believes the administration took the right approach to try to hold the drug industry accountable.

"This is not something where the governor's trying to score a political victory over the attorney general," Block said.

The Edwards administration filed a lawsuit in September through the state health department against more than a dozen drug companies, accusing them of "an orchestrated campaign to flood Louisiana with highly-addictive and dangerous opioids" to boost their profits. The lawsuit seeks damages for payments made through the Medicaid program for opioid prescriptions and for treatment costs tied to opioid abuse.

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Landry wants to take charge of the litigation, saying the scope should be broadened to include opioids' impacts on other agencies, such as increased costs to the state's criminal justice and education systems and the impact on social services. Landry says his office has the constitutional authority to "supersede" the health agency in the lawsuit.

Lawyers for the statewide elected officials haggled in court Friday about the attorney general's scope of authority over lawyers in state agencies; about whether a lawsuit from the health department is the same as a legal action on behalf of the state of Louisiana; and about whether the current opioid lawsuit is being handled well.

Judge Wilson Fields said he would announce his ruling Feb. 20.

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Edwards and Landry have quarreled repeatedly since taking office in 2016, over finances, contracts and the limits of their jobs. Landry is seen as a possible challenger to Edwards in the 2019 election.

While the arguments in the courtroom were all about legalese, outside the courtroom Landry and Block traded barbs indicative of the lengthy list of ongoing disputes.

Landry said the health department has no experience handling the type of complex litigation involved in suing a deep-pocketed industry like the pharmaceutical companies. He said other states with similar opioids lawsuits have their attorneys general handling them.

"The governor, being a lawyer, wants to be attorney general and the governor. He should decide. He could've run for attorney general. He didn't," Landry said. "I would appreciate if he would stay in his capacity as governor."

Asked why Louisiana didn't follow a similar path as other states in filing the lawsuit, Block said other states have different laws. But he also acknowledged the history of disagreement between the governor and attorney general: "I guess in other states there's perhaps more cooperation."

-By Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

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