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Tort king surrenders crown

Seventeen days before his trial on charges of judicial bribery was set to begin, Dickie Scruggs entered a plea of guilty March 14 in Federal District Court in Oxford.

Scruggs and his law partner, Sidney Backstrom, admitted their involvement in a conspiracy to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey.

Prosecutors recommended Scruggs be sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary; they recommended Backstrom receive two and a half years. Scruggs’ son, Zach, also indicted in connection to the same case, did not enter a plea. He is scheduled to go to trial March 31.

Scruggs’ admission brings an end to three months of legal posturing and rampant speculation that began when he and members of his law firm were first indicted in late November.

Three men — attorneys Timothy Balducci and Joey Langston and former state auditor Steve Patterson — pleaded guilty earlier this year, and have been cooperating with the government ever since.

Immense pressure

The offices of federal prosecutors are well funded, well staffed and have a reputation for being ferocious once a target is identified. Matt Steffey, a professor of law at Mississippi College, said the pressure they can exert on a defendant is immense.

“You’re not going to win a war of attrition with the federal government,” Steffey said.

Mix that in with the opportunity for a defendant to greatly lessen his punishment by pleading guilty, and Scruggs and Backstrom — like Balducci, Patterson and Langston — were most likely left with little choice, Steffey said.

“If (Scruggs) would have been found guilty by a jury, he would have had absolutely no control over his sentence, where he would serve it or the dollar amount of his fine,” Steffey said.

Business community reacts

Since the indictments were first handed down, Mississippi’s legal community has been turned on its head. The Wall Street Journal has resumed its editorials calling for reform in the state, much the same way the newspaper did before the Mississippi Legislature passed tort reform in the 2004 session.

One of the groups who pushed hardest back then for tort reform was Mississippians for Economic Progress. The group’s president, Lex Taylor, had not returned a phone message seeking comment as of press time.

As for the long-term effects of this case’s indictments and subsequent guilty pleas, Steffey said there are two schools of thought: If the cooperation of those who have already pleaded guilty lead prosecutors to indict a large number of additional people, the aftermath will reach far and wide. If it turns out this is an isolated incident in which a handful of wealthy, rogue lawyers tried to rig the system in their favor, little in the way of lasting effects will be felt.

“Judicial bribery undermines everybody’s sense of fairness when it comes to the judicial system,” Steffey said.

Political fallout

Mississippi’s Republican Party offered one immediate suggestion: State GOP Chairman Jim Herring called for the Mississippi Supreme Court to appoint independent counsel to delve into the relationship between Scruggs and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. Scruggs donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a political action committee that in turn gave similar amounts to Hood’s campaign for re-election last fall. Herring also announced that the party would donate to the state’s Boys and Girls Clubs any money Scruggs had given to the GOP.

Hood has offered the resources of his office to three district attorneys if they choose to bring state charges in the matter. Hood has said in the past that he will not prosecute the case himself because his affiliations with each of the defendants would give the appearance of impropriety.

“The federal government is handling these cases,” Hood said in a statement. “The district attorneys of the state of Mississippi are, in essence, independent prosecutors, and my office has made available to them every resource we possess should they decide to pursue state charges. But given the Republican Party’s sudden pronouncement in this matter, the question must be asked: Has this entire sad and disappointing chapter in Mississippi history dissolved into ruinous partisan politics? For the sake of our citizens, I hope not.”

Profession under fire?

Another immediate effect of the guilty pleas is the Mississippi Bar Association signaled its intent to initiate disbarment proceedings against Scruggs and Backstrom once it receives formal copies of the plea documents. The association has already filed to disbar Langston and Balducci.

“The legal profession demands the utmost honesty and integrity from its members. This type of conduct cannot be tolerated,” said Bobby Bailess, a Vicksburg attorney who serves as president of the Mississippi Bar.

“Not only is the Bar addressing this from a disciplinary standpoint, but also the Bar’s governing board has created a task force to examine our legal system and make recommendations to ensure the honesty and integrity of the Bar and fairness and impartiality within the judiciary.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

About Clay Chandler

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