Dickie Scruggs and Redemption

November 18, 2015 § 2 Comments

If you’ve been around here for a while, you know that I have not been a fan of Dickie Scruggs and the damage he did to the legal profession and our courts.

Aside from his arrogance and trampling of ethics, it galled me that he seemed to be trying to deflect the blame onto the judges he either corrupted or attempted to corrupt. I almost expected his post-prison persona to be devoted to a rehabilitation of his former formidable self, coupled with casting doubt on the criminal cases that brought him down.

But the exact opposite has happened. I saw a recent interview with Tom Brokaw in which Mr. Scruggs admitted that his criminal conduct came about because “I got too big for my britches,” and “It was hubris” plain and simple. In a Clarion-Ledger interview he said, “I regret what I did. I paid a high price for it. After all, I pled guilty to corruption.” Those are breathtakingly humble admissions from a man who once ran over anyone and everything that stood in the way of what he wanted, ethics and the law be damned.

In prison, he came to grips with how far he had fallen and rediscovered decency. He began tutoring inmates for an adult GED program. Since his release, he has begin promoting adult illiteracy classes. You can read the Clarion-Ledger interview at this link. Scruggs says in the interview that he misses the practice of law, but now he has a worthy cause to which he can bring his advocacy skills.

I wish Mr. Scruggs well in this endeavor, as we should all. He is no longer a colleague, and never again will he be, but he is trying to make a difference in our poor, undereducated state, and that deserves applause and encouragement, no matter who is doing it.

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.

TWILIGHT OF THE GODS

July 25, 2010 § 2 Comments

They were so powerful that they thought they were gods, immune from the misfortunes of mere mortals.  They were Dickie Scruggs and all of his allies and fellow-travelers who rose to unparalleled power and wealth through bribery and corruption, until their un-god-like downfall.  Their story is an epic Mississippi saga.

The next book on the grotesquerie of Dickie Scruggs and his ilk will be out soon.  THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF ZEUS, by Mississippian Curtis Wilkie, former BOSTON GLOBE foreign correspondent and current Ole Miss professor, is set to be released October 19, 2010, and the author will be at Square Books in Oxford that day to talk about his book and autograph copies.

Author Richard Ford made these comments about the book on the Square Books web site …

Addictive reading for anyone interested in greed, outrageous behavior, epic bad planning and character, lousy luck, and worst of all, comically bad manners. Wilkie knows precisely where the skeletons, the cash boxes and the daggers are buried along the Mississippi backroads. And he knows, ruefully — which is why this book demands a wide audience — that the south, no matter its looney sense of exceptionalism, is pretty much just like the rest of the planet.

I reviewed Alan Lange’s and Tom Dawson’s book on the Scruggs downfall here.

THE MARK OF THE BEAST

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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