Judge in Scruggs case facing inquiry
JACKSON, Miss. - A watchdog group will examine the actions of a state judge in the center of one of trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs' many controversies.
The Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance on Friday called for a full investigation into the actions of Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, according to a report in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
Booneville attorney Joey Langston, who represented Scruggs in an attorneys fees dispute over which DeLaughter presided, admitted last month to attempting to bribe DeLaughter with a federal judgeship. Scruggs' brother-in-law is former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott.
DeLaughter has maintained that he did not change his rulings because of the attempted bribe.
William Roberts Wilson, Alwyn Luckey and Scruggs each had their own stake in a group Scruggs started to file asbestos cases. Wilson eventually sold his interest in more than 2,300 asbestos cases in an agreement that was interpreted differently by the two sides.
Luckey was awarded $17.5 million in his dispute with Scruggs after a trial in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis, but Wilson received only a $1.5 million payment because DeLaughter's interpretation of the contract showed no remaining balance owed to Wilson, and that the 2006 trial would have been merely for bragging rights.
A special master that had been on the case since 1995 concluded that Wilson was owed $15 million. DeLaughter, obviously, did not agree.
"Were we surprised? Were we amazed? Yes," said Charles Merkel, attorney for Wilson. "From that point on, when we went forward, everything we did or attempted was shot down in an antagonistic manner."
Langston and Timothy Balducci worked the case for Scruggs, who has maintained his innocence in an alleged scheme involving at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees earned in a settlement with State Farm Insurance Cos. over Hurricane Katrina claims.
Scruggs, his son Zach and Sidney Backstrom -- all members of the Scruggs Law Firm in Oxford, Miss. - await their March 30 trial. They face up to 75 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.
Balducci, who left The Langston Law Firm and partnered with former state Auditor Steven Patterson on another business, pleaded guilty to that alleged scheme, as did Patterson.
Lafayette Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey tipped off federal prosecutors, while DeLaughter's information came in a grand jury meeting after Balducci had pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Scruggs also faces criminal contempt charges in Alabama.
Scruggs made his fortune in litigation against asbestos companies and by representing several states in their case against tobacco companies. His work helped lead to 1998's Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which has an estimated worth of $246 billion to the 52 participating states and territories.