SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
December 12, 2010 § 8 Comments
Curtis Wilkie’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF ZEUS is the story of the rise and fall of powerful trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs. It is entertainingly well written, as one would expect of an author with Wilkie’s gift for the word, and microscopically researched. Wilkie’s book complements KINGS OF TORT, Alan Lange’s and Tom Dawson’s treatment of Scruggs’ downfall from the prosecution point of view. Those of you who savor Wilkie’s keen writing and incisive journalism will not be disappointed by this book. The subject matter is a must-know for all Mississippi lawyers and jurists, and citizens as well. I recommend that you buy and read this book.
Although I commend Wilkies’s book to you, I do find it troubling that it is unabashedly sympathetic to Scruggs. Wilkie finally acknowledges their friendship at page 371, the third-to-last page of the book.
As a member of the legal profession for nearly four decades and a member of the judicial branch, I can find no sympathy whatsoever for Scruggs at this stage of his life. His flirtations with unethical conduct and illegality are legion. Even his acolyte (Stewart Parrish’s excellent descriptive), Tim Balducci, said in a candid moment that his approach to corruptly influence judge Lackey was not his “first rodeo” with Scruggs, and that he knew “where all the bodies are buried.” Big talk? Perhaps. But to me it eloquently bespeaks Scruggs’ history: His involvement at the shadowy edges of Paul Minor’s illegal dealings with Judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield; his use of stolen documents in the tobacco litigation; his use of questionably acquired documents in the State Farm litigation; and the hiring of Ed Peters to influence Judge Bobby Delaughter. Are there more?
Wilkie suggests that Scruggs’ increasing dependence on pain-killer medication led him to fall carelessly into a trap laid for him and Balducci by a scheming Judge Lackey, who had it in for Scruggs because of Scruggs’ political attacks on Lackey’s friend George Dale. He posits that Lackey created the crime, and that Scruggs had set out initially “only” to improperly influence Lackey.
The pain killers may be a contributing reason, but even a first-year law student knows that is not an excuse.
What about the idea of a trap? I leave it to lawyers far better versed in criminal law and procedure to address that. To me, the issue is finally resolved in this sentence on page 337: “But Scruggs had acknowledged, ‘I joined the conspiracy later in the game.'” Case closed as far as I am concerned. Moreover, Scruggs was not an unsophisticated convenience store owner charged with food stamp fraud. He was a sophisticated, powerful lawyer skilled in manipulating the levers of legal machinery. He was not a gullible rube who did not grasp the significance of his actions or their consequences. He was a lawyer and as such was held to the highest standard of propriety vis a vis the judiciary, a standard he trod into the mud.
As for Judge Lackey, the author skillfully excerpts quotes from the judge’s testimony to support his charge that Lackey had an animus against Wilkie’s friend, in particular the judge’s use of the term “scum” to describe Scruggs. From my perspective, I can understand how someone in Lackey’s position would view the arrogant and powerful lawyer as scum when he saw how Scruggs had seduced the star-struck young Balducci, whom Lackey liked, into impropriety and, indeed, illegality. Some of Dickie’s and Curtis’ influential and powerful friends in Oxford may buy Wilkie’s and Scruggs’ attempt to tar Judge Lackey, but I do not. Judge Lackey chose to stay on the side of right and Scruggs chose the other side. The point goes to the judge.
Scruggs’ plaint that he only intended to commit an unethical act, not a crime — in other words that the consequences were unintended — is a familiar theme in history. Henry II of England griped to his knights that he was irked by that troublesome bishop, Thomas Becket. The knights, knowing from experience how far they could go before incurring the wrath of their king, promptly rode to Canterbury and rid their sovereign of that meddlesome priest, killing him at the altar. Likewise, Scruggs’ knights, Balducci, Patterson, Langston, Backstrom and the others, knew the ballpark Scruggs was accustomed to playing in, and they set out with his money and influence to promote his (and their) interests in the accustomed manner of doing business.
Henry II did penance for the rest of his life for what he saw as the unintended consequences of his actions. Will Scruggs try to redeem himself for the damage he did to the legal profession and the legal system? Time will tell. When he is released from prison, he could find ways to devote some of his hundreds of millions of dollars to improving the courts and the legal profession and restoring integrity to the profession that made him rich. In the final decades of his lfe, he could become known as a philanthropist who advanced the law and the legal profession, with his past a footnote. I hope that is what he does.
Read this book and judge it yourself. You may see it differently than I. The story, though, and its lessons, are important for Mississippians to know and understand.