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Dickie Scruggs is Heading for Jail
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
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
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
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
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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