Scruggs gets new judge in contempt proceedings

John O'Brien Dec. 12, 2007, 2:17pm


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - A federal judge from Florida will preside over the criminal contempt case against prominent Mississippi trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs taking place in Alabama.

Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge J.L. Edmondson appointed Judge C. Roger Vinson Tuesday, nearly a month after Scruggs' defense team successfully argued that each of the federal judges in Northern Alabama district should recuse themselves from the case.

Edmondson wrote that Vinson indicated he is "willing and able to perform the duties of district judge" in the case against Scruggs.

Scruggs claimed that because each of the Northern Alabama judges personally knew Judge William Acker, they should not be allowed to preside over the case. It was Acker who kickstarted the indictment of Scruggs by hiring special prosecutors to make the charges.

He claimed Scruggs did not comply with an injunction in December by refusing to hand over documents from E.A. Renfroe, a claims-handling company working with State Farm after Hurricane Katrina, 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. Hood had asked Martin not to because he considered Scruggs a confidential informant for his class action case against five insurance companies, including State Farm.

That's when Acker enlisted the help of special prosecutors who would file charges. For that, Scruggs' legal team moved to disqualify not just Acker, but all federal judges for the Northern District of Alabama.

"Undersigned counsel have great respect for all the judges and magistrate judges in the Northern District of Alabama, so it is with trepidation but out of great concern that we raise the issue of recusal," says Scruggs' motion, filed Nov. 13.

"Simply put, how can any one of the Honorable William M. Acker's colleagues, in a case in which he has taken a great personal interest, including signing the charging document 'on behalf of the United States of America,' decide the issues involved -- including the request to dismiss charges and/or to set aside the appointment of prosecutors -- without thinking about the effect the rulings will have on the esteemed Senior Judge with whom he or she serves?"

Vinson graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and spent six years as an aviator before obtaining his J.D. from Vanderbilt University. President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the federal bench in 1983.

Scruggs is also facing criminal charges in Mississippi, where federal prosecutors say he and four others conspired to bribe a state judge with the goal of compelling arbitration in an attorneys fees dispute with another law firm.

The two sides disagreed on how to split up $26.5 million in attorneys fees earned in a settling of 640 cases under Hood's class action suit against State Farm.

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