July 1, 2010 § 12 Comments

And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads; And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.  Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six. Revelations 13:16-18.

666.  The number of the mark of the beast. 

Irony of ironies, that is the section of the federal criminal code under which Dickie Scruggs and his cohorts were indicted for the crime of corruptly influencing a public official.  18 U.S.C. §666.

And so it was that Dickie Scruggs and his minions, bearing the mark, bought and sold justice in Mississippi.

I have read KINGS OF TORT by Alan Lange and Tom Dawson, the enthralling story of how Dickie Scruggs and Paul Minor, in league with others, corrupted our legal system.  The story is stomach-turning and fascinating at the same time, in the same way that one is revolted by seeing a person leap to his death from a tall building, yet can not look away.  It is a story that will repel and anger honest lawyers and judges, and yet it is one that they must know.  I feel strongly that it is a must-read for anyone who has practiced law or sat the bench in Mississippi, as well as anyone else who is interested in our state legal system. 

KINGS OF TORT is the story of the rise and fall of some of the richest and most powerful lawyers ever known in Mississippi, and indeed in our republic, along with the judges they corruptly influenced.  They are all here:  Dickie Scruggs, Zach Scruggs, Paul Minor, Bobby DeLaughter, Joey Langston, Sid Backstrom, Tim Balducci, John Whitfield, Wes Teel, Ed Peters, Steve Patterson and others who, for money, or out of lust for power and control, or for sheer egotism, stole from one another and tried to manipulate and corrupt the legal system to achieve their ends.  It’s all too unfortunately true, and it happened here in our state during our careers as we went about our quotidian legal tasks, unmindful of the cesspool growing only a few miles down the road that would engulf so many.

Authors Alan Lange and Tom Dawson each had a favored vantage point from which to view this Greek tragedy, act by act.  Lange amassed literally tons of information on the various scandals by his untiring reporting on his blog, Y’all Politics.  Dawson was one of the lead prosecutors in the Oxford U.S. Attorney’s office who helped design the strategy that brought down the Scruggs house of cards, from coordinating FBI investigation and search warrants to drafting the indictments and preparing for trial.

The downfall of Dickie Scruggs was a national story, reported as it unfolded in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.  Several Mississippi-based blogs followed the story closely and actually served as sources for the national press.  Lange’s own Y’all Politics was a major player in revealing much information.  Folo, now in hiatus, was energetic in pursuing the story, often breaking news that others missed, and one of its most astute contributors, NMC (who is Oxford atty Tom Freeland), continues with his own blog, NMissCommentor.    

The improbable hero of this sordid saga is District 3 Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City, who toppled the kings of tort from their thrones by going to the U.S. Attorney and reporting that they were attempting to bribe him.  He then wore a wire and captured the crucial evidence that first snared Balducci, and then took down Scruggs, Backstrom, Patterson and Langston.  Judge Lackey is an engaging and self-effacing man with a wry humor.  When the prosecutors warned him of the stress that his role as undercover witness would place on him and his heart problems, he smiled and said with country assurance, “Boys, don’t mind the mule, just load the wagon.”  He would be the first to disclaim the hero label, pointing out that he only did what his oath and judicial ethics expected of him.

Most readers will find the writing in large part clear and easy to read.  The authors do a good job of explaining complicated legal proceedings and concepts in a way that non-lawyers can easily grasp.  What is unfortunately lacking in a book such as this with national exposure, however, is decent editing.  It is bothersome that the writers appear not to know the difference between “affect” and “effect,” or that the correct pronoun to refer to a person is “who” rather than “that” (e.g., “He is the person that who loaned the money”), or that “tortuous” does not mean the same thing as “tortious,” or that the word “divulge” does not mean “deprive,” or that proper usage is “between him and … ” and not “between he and … “, or that the court room of the Calhoun County Court House is in Pittsboro and not Calhoun City, and that some of the clauses within clauses will make your head spin.  Good editing would have cured those defects.  Warts and all, though, it’s still a worthwhile and even essential read for Mississippi lawyers.

Buy this book and keep it in your law office library.  Keep it handy.  When you feel an itch to stretch ethical limits, even ever so slightly, to score big in a case, or to gain an upperhand, or you feel the temptation to shaft another lawyer who has been loyal and helpful to you, pull this book off the shelf and hold it.  Remember those lawyers and judges marked with the number of the beast and ask yourself:  “Do I really want to be like them?”

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