O'Malley legal counsel to be insurance chief

September 06, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to make one of his closest advisers the new insurance commissioner, a job that could play an integral role in efforts to expand health insurance coverage and maintain the availability of property coverage in risky coastal zones.

O'Malley will appoint Ralph S. Tyler III, a former Baltimore City solicitor who is now the governor's legal counsel, officials said.

Tyler gained prominence last year as the public face of O'Malley's lawsuit against the Public Service Commission over its failure to hold hearings on a 72 percent Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. electricity rate increase.

"Ralph Tyler has been a great consumer advocate in the office of the mayor and certainly advocated very well for the citizens in the debate with the PSC over electric rates," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "Hopefully, he'll take the same attitude when he goes to the insurance administration."

Tyler said last night that he appreciates "this opportunity the governor has given me to serve the citizens of Maryland in an important position."

Tyler, 60, is known for his booming voice and aggressive courtroom advocacy, but his new job will make him more of a judge than a litigator. He will be responsible for interpreting the limits of insurance coverage, deciding on the legitimacy of rate increase requests and adjudicating disputes between consumers and insurers.

The commissioner's office also is a conflict point between trial lawyers and the insurance industry.

Representatives of the two sides were guarded in their comments yesterday because they will have to appear in front of Tyler, but his appointment was generally seen as a boon to the lawyers.

The PSC case - which Tyler won - wasn't his only high-profile public trial. As an assistant attorney general in 1995, he argued for the state in its defense against Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey's challenge to the 1994 election result. He won that one, too.

Before that, he represented the Baltimore Department of Social Services in its case against Jacqueline Louise Bouknight, a mother who had abused her child and refused to tell a judge where he was. She spent seven years in jail for civil contempt, which legal scholars said at the time was unprecedented.

Tyler worked for the state attorney general's office from 1982 to 1996, the last decade as chief of litigation.

He worked for eight years at the Baltimore firm Hogan & Hartson before becoming city solicitor. His appointment as insurance commissioner will require state Senate approval, which is expected.

A native of Cleveland, he attended the University of Illinois and the Case Western Reserve University School of Law. The Ralph S. Tyler Jr. endowed chair in constitutional law at Harvard Law School is named for his father, an attorney in Cleveland. Until recently, it was held by Laurence Tribe.

Tyler will step into an office that has swung back and forth between the two sides in recent years, with industry advocates claiming a heavy pro-consumer bias under Democratic former Gov. Parris N. Glendening and consumer advocates claiming a pro-industry bias under Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Seeking balance

Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican, said that if the commissioner sides too heavily with consumers, insurance companies will stop writing policies in the state.

"I hope we don't go back to the days where the regulator was wanting something for free," Miller said. "You have to be fair and balanced."

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat and chairman of the committee that handles insurance issues, said the Ehrlich administration's focus on increasing competition in the state's insurance market was good but went too far.

"Under the Ehrlich administration, I think things might have gotten a little out of balance right from the get-go," Middleton said.

"The role of the insurance commissioner is to be balanced."

Health insurance

Bryson F. Popham, a lobbyist who represents insurance clients, said many of the big issues facing the office revolve around health insurance.

If the state moves toward a universal coverage plan like the one Massachusetts enacted recently - something in which O'Malley has expressed interest - the insurance commissioner could play a strong role in developing a consumer-oriented insurance marketplace.

Popham said the commissioner will also be on the front lines of interpreting a new law allowing consumers to recover damages, expenses, litigation costs and interest in cases where insurance companies failed to act in good faith.

Tyler will also be faced with a market in which property insurers have moved to limit their liability along the Atlantic Coast and in some cases along the Chesapeake Bay for fear of extensive and costly hurricane damage.

"The primary job of the insurance commissioner is to be sure that companies that are licensed to do business in Maryland remain solvent ... but consumer protection is just as important," Popham said.

"I agree that those appear to be competing concerns."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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