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Dickie Scruggs is Heading for Jail

By: Carl Langley
web posted June 30, 2008
GUEST COLUMN – The good news is Mississippi trial lawyer Richard (Dickie) Scruggs is going to jail. The bad news is that his jail sentence isn’t long enough, considering the damage he did to the American court system.

Scruggs, who piled up hundreds of millions of dollars while winning lawsuits against the tobacco, asbestos and insurance industries, will be looking at life from behind prison walls after pleading guilty to trying to bribe a Mississippi trial court judge.

Well, we know one thing. There is at least one honest man practicing law in Mississippi. That would be state court trial judge Henry Lackey, who tipped off federal authorities about the attempt to buy “justice” in his court.

Scruggs dangled $50,000 in front of Judge Lackey in an effort to obtain a favorable ruling in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of Hurricane Katrina insurance cases.

With Scruggs and too many lawyers banking hundreds of millions of dollars while driving doctors, asbestos makers, insurance companies and tobacco companies into bankruptcy it appears greed was overpowering.

Scruggs was indicted last November along with his son, who also is going to jail, and a law partner, who also is going to jail, after the FBI planted a listening device that caught them in the act of offering cash for their idea of justice.

There will be no fighting this one, these evil men were convicted by their own words. I would have loved to have been in that courtroom and watched the skunks squirm when the tape recording was played to the jury.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers, who imposed a five-year jail sentence on Scruggs, wryly remarked that the preening, high-powered lawyer “picked the wrong man to try to bribe.”

Which leads the more learned among us to wonder how many judges fell for Scruggs’ bait over the years. Scruggs earned himself the title of “king of torts,” but I bet the skunk would give up his royal status if he could go back a few years and change his ways.

One thing is for certain, he won’t be practicing law in Mississippi, or anywhere else, for the remainder of his days. He has been disbarred. He also must give up $250,000 of his ill-gotten gains in the form of a fine imposed by the federal judge.

Scruggs’ predicament is much appreciated by those among us in favor of honest dealings, but there is a gnawing suspicion among many of us that he should be joined in a federal lockup by many others of his kind. If we only knew how many trial lawyers pulled the same stunts during the 1980s and 1990s when class action lawsuits reached their zenith.

Several years after, I read where at least one lawyer made enough money to buy a professional sports team and another was riding high in his big, fancy yacht purchased by the largesse granted to him by witless jurors in one tobacco case.

In a glowing example of “like father, like son,” Dickie’s son Zach and Sidney Backstrom, a former law partner in the Scruggs firm in Oxford, Miss., pleaded guilty last March to being the bagmen in the bribery conspiracy.

Backstrom has been given 28 months in prison for cooperating with investigators and Zach will be sentenced within a few days. I suggest he be given the same amount of time as dad.

Dickie asked the judge if he could serve his five years in a federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla., where, just by chance, Paul Minor, another prominent Mississippi lawyer and former Scruggs associate, is working on an 11-year sentence for bribing two judges.

I imagine Dickie wants to be near Paul so they can compare notes, and Scruggs probably will be asking how in the world his old buddy was able to bribe two judges. The two judges were not named but if they took the money and got caught the odds are they are being housed in taxpayer-funded accommodations.

If those cases aren’t bad enough, let us not forget that Scruggs’ former defense attorney Joey Langston of Booneville pleaded guilty in a case in which he tried to influence a Hinds County judge in an asbestos lawsuit.

Federal authorities said Langston, who probably was too greedy to offer Judge Bobby DeLaughter money for his rulings, was accused of promising DeLaughter that Scruggs could get him appointed to the federal bench with the help of Sen. Trent Lott.

I wonder how Lott feels hearing his name being bandied about behind closed doors with chatter about federal court appointments. Perhaps Lott knows more than I do about the case. Scruggs was not charged in the Langston case.

The Scruggs case reminds me of a remark reportedly made by a lawyer in an Aiken court years ago. The lawyer, obviously an honest one, observed that on too many occasions people come into court looking for justice and mercy and find neither.

He wasn’t talking about Mississippi, where justice and mercy are readily available if you have the cash. All that is needed is a satchel full of Ben Franklins, a few people willing to sell their reputations and souls and a few pliable judges.

I hope there is a lesson to be learned in the Scruggs case but I doubt that it will. There are too many trial lawyers chasing too few clients and too few class action cases. That’s why I have never voted for a trial lawyer for any office, even if he promised to wear a muzzle. And remember this: while you are sleeping at night, somewhere there is a trial lawyer wide awake and pondering how to put a new class action lawsuit into motion.

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