October 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

Of all the sad aspects of the Scruggs saga, the one that most troubles me is the chain of events that led to the downfall of Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter. Up to now, what we have known of his culpability could be gleaned from his own guilty plea and from reading between the lines of other disclosures. Ed Peters’ involvement, and how he interacted with DeLaughter, has been left mostly to conjecture and street gossip.

Thanks to motions filed by Scruggs in federal court, however, Peters’ grand jury testimony, or a portion of it, has been unsealed, and you can read for yourself the sordid details. Tom Freeland has summarized it, and has another post about it. You can read Peters’ testimony for yourself here and here. Freeland followed up with another couple of posts that you can find on his blog.  

Philip Thomas has a post questioning why Peters has never been prosecuted in state court.

Some had considered DeLaughter a sort of wunderkind of the bench. They expected special things of him after he stepped out of the role as prosecutor of Byron De la Beckwith into a circuit judgeship. But he was a long-time associate of Ed Peters, the Hinds County DA, and he allowed himself to be in a position to be influenced by Peters. Peters took advantage of the cozy relationship to demand hefty fees from clients who expected him to influence the circuit judge. Peters’ testimony reveals how they did it. 

It still turns my stomach to read this stuff, but it’s important for us to know and understand how this unfolded so that we can take measures to ensure that it will never happen again.


December 30, 2010 § 2 Comments

Hinds County Circuit Judge Swan Yerger yesterday dismissed with prejudice Eaton Corporation’s lawsuit against Jeffery Frisby, et al., based on a finding that counsel for Eaton knew that Ed Peters was clandestinely attempting to influence the then trial judge, Bobby DeLaughter, and sanctioned Peters’ actions for their client’s benefit.

Judge Yerger found that dismissal of the billion-dollar suit was necessary to protect the integrity of the judicial system.  Philip Thomas comments on it here, with links to much more information on the suit.  Tom Freeland adds his thoughts here.    

The demise of Eaton’s suit is collateral damage from the Scruggs judicial scandal, which shed the light of day on Ed Peters’ activities vis a vis Judge DeLaughter in Scruggs’  legal battle with the Wilson law firm and gave reason to scrutinize his actions in Eaton.  If Balducci’s efforts to corrupt Judge Lackey had succeeded or never been reported, what is the likelihood that the improprieties in Eaton would ever have been uncovered?  And if Peters had gone undetected, would the defendants have suffered a billion-dollar miscarriage of justice?  Thankfully, we will never know for sure.


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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