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.

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  • ItsAboutTime says:

    Bellesouth has been a Scruggs apologist from day one. One wonders if she might indeed be Dickie

  • bellesouth says:

    I am more than willing to refrain from becoming personal but this opinion of Judge Larry Primeaux disregards the law and makes it personal when he claims Scruggs’s “flirtations with unethical conduct and illegality are legion,” and “[h]is 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 and concealment of stolen doccuments in the State Farm litigation; and ultimately the corruption of Judge Bobby Delaughter,” are not facts in evidence. In fact, they are not facts at all. That is all mere gossip of jealous lawyers. The entrapment of Dickie and Zach because of gossip is far more worse than anything they accused them of. It takes two to tango Judge. And he thinks they corrputed Delaughter? That is laughable.

    • Larry says:

      I did edit the post to clarify what I meant about DeLaughter. I was trying to enumerate some of the Scruggs’ team’s efforts, not to say what, if anything, DeLaughter did. The language I used originally was ambiguous at best.Thanks for pointing that out.

  • stewart parrish says:

    As a criminal defense attorney, I was troubled most by two actions Judge Lackey took: First, when he thought he heard a bribe offer, he eventually recused himslf from the case. At the Government’s request, he “unrecused” himself so that the Government could use his relationship with Balducci to further their investigations. Second, Judge Lackey came up with the amount for the bribe. It was Judge Lackey who broached the subject of his financial difficulties. That is very troubling.
    Yes hindsight is 20/20, and Scruggs had been a person of interest in the Teel, Minor etc. investigation, but he only joined this conspiracy after it was hatched by prosecutors and Judge Lackey. Still wrong! But the question of intent from the beginning, is troubling to me.
    Of course, reasonable people can disagree without being objectionable. Bellesouth should refrain from becoming personal in what should be an exchange of ideas.

  • Your Lies Have Lies says:

    Great post your honor. It’s a shame Dicky used his money to corrupt his friends and his own son. I hope he follows your advice after he gets out considering the great amount of damage he has done.

    Bellesouth – Zack is a criminal just like his father. No documents? Why do you think the Rigsby sisters were on Dicky’s payroll? You can defend these admitted criminals if you want, but don’t be surprised when you are viewed in the same light as they are.

  • bellesouth says:

    Besides that, there were no documents were stolen from State Farm. They are in possession of all of their documents. State Farm is involved in a false claims suit against them for bilking the taxpayers of the United States for all the damage during Katrina. They claim that there wasn’t any wind on the coast so they billed the National Flood Insurance for both wind and water damage.

  • Bellesouth says:

    I think you, as a judge should be more concerned here about over zealous prosecutors and the lengths to which they used their power as well as lying to the judge about Zach Scruggs who was put in jail for misprision of an ethical violation. I guess since you’re a chancery court judge you’re not aware of rampant misconduct by prosecutors but it is way more worse than what Zach did. Even the prosecutors concede that there was no intention to bribe Lackey. Why should they bribe a judge to what was required by law for him to do? After all, Tollison had already earwigged the judge into filing the suit under seal. Who are you trying to kid?

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