Lafayette judges asked off case before indictment of Scruggs

John O'Brien Dec. 5, 2007, 11:28am


OXFORD, Miss. - A little more than a week before a federal grand jury indicted prominent Mississippi trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, the state judge he allegedly attempted to bribe and two others recused themselves from presiding over the case from which the indictment sprung.

On Nov. 19, at least one of circuit judges Henry Lackey, Robert Elliott and Andrew Howorth signed a motion for recusal that asked for the appointment of a special judge to take on the case, Jones v. Scruggs.

Nine days later, Scruggs and two others from his firm, son Zack and Sidney Backstrom, were pegged as conspirators along with Timothy Balducci and Steven Patterson of Balducci and Patterson by the federal government.

The next day, Nov. 29, the order was finally entered in Lafayette Circuit Court by Circuit Clerk Mary Allison Busby. The order on file in Lafayette County appears to have been torn, taped and folded.

The Mississippi Supreme Court did not receive the request until Nov. 29, public information officer Beverly Kraft said (the motions on file with the Supreme Court can be viewed here). Chosen to replace Lackey was William F. Coleman Jr. of Jackson, a senior status judge retired from Hinds County Circuit Court. He was not immediately available for comment.

The indicted five allegedly offered Lackey $40,000 to compel arbitration in Jones, a case filed by fellow Scruggs Katrina Group member John Jones. He said Scruggs was attempting to take more than his share of $26.5 million in attorneys fees from the settling of 640 Hurricane Katrina-related cases against State Farm Insurance Cos.

"All three of the trial court judges in Lafayette County Circuit Court recused themselves on the matter of Jones v. Scruggs," state Supreme Court public information office Beverly Kraft said, "and submitted a request to the Mississippi Supreme Court for appointment of a special judge."

The judges did not offer an explanation for their request in the one-page motion.

The order states:

"This matter is before the Court on the Court's own ore tenus motion for recusal, due to the parties involved in the above-styled matter which give rise to the potential for an appearance of impropriety. Under these circumstances, the Court is of the opinion that the recusal is appropriate. The parties shall await appointment of a replacement special judge from the Mississippi Supreme Court."

Coleman was also appointed in May 2006 as a special circuit judge in Hinds County with the intention of lightening the county's criminal caseload but health issues prevented him from hearing any cases. He retired from Hinds Circuit Court on Dec. 31, 1996, after serving on that bench for 20 years.

Scruggs is also being charged with criminal contempt charges in Alabama, where federal Judge William Acker feels Scruggs did not comply with an injunction in December. He says Scruggs refused to hand over documents from E.A. Renfroe, a claims-handling company working with State Farm, back to the company's attorneys.

Instead, Scruggs gave them to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. Acker recommended to U.S. Attorney Alice Martin that she pursue criminal contempt charges, but she declined. That's when Acker enlisted the help of special prosecutors who would file charges.

Hood, who received campaign contributions from Scruggs, wrote Martin to ask that she not file charges because Scruggs was a confidential informant for his office.

Scruggs has long had ties to the Attorney General's Office in Mississippi. His firm earned $1.4 billion when it was hired by former Attorney General Mike Moore to negotiate the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in the late 1990s.

-Steve Korris contributed to this report.

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