New judge in Scruggs' Jackson case

John O'Brien Mar. 31, 2008, 2:23pm



JACKSON, Miss. - With Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter suspended while complaints against him are sorted out, a new judge will preside over an attorneys fees dispute involving admitted felon and famed trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs.

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Billy Bridges was appointed Monday by Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Smith to take on the case against Scruggs filed by former partner William Roberts Wilson Jr., according to a report in the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson.

The Supreme Court temporarily suspended DeLaughter Friday after the judge wrote that he would not oppose one.

"I believe with all my heart in the system, and therefore, place complete trust in the commission and the Supreme Court to give these matters dispassionate and considered fair judgment, guided by the rules and the law," DeLaughter wrote, according to a report in the Biloxi Sun Herald. "Once that is done, I will quietly and humbly abide by their decisions."

Bridges was appointed to the Hinds County court initially to help with a backlog of cases, as were judges Breland Hillburn and William Coleman.

DeLaughter presided over a dispute between Scruggs and former partner William Roberts Wilson, Jr. The two teamed up on asbestos cases and disagreed over the amount of fees Wilson was owed after he sold his interest in the enterprise.

A special master recommended DeLaughter rule Wilson was owed $15 million, but DeLaughter instead decided in 2006 that Wilson was already paid in full when Scruggs gave him $1.5 million.

Booneville attorney Joey Langston, who represented Scruggs in the latter part of the case, pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe DeLaughter with consideration for a federal judgeship. Scruggs' brother-in-law, then-Sen. Trent Lott, could make recommendations to President Bush.

Ultimately, after what has been described as a "courtesy call," Lott gave his support to another candidate.

Wilson attorneys Vicki Slater and William Kirksey filed a complaint against DeLaughter. The Commission alleges that Langston, then-partner Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson used former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters as an intermediary to communicate with DeLaughter.

The complaint says DeLaughter showed an opinion he planned to enter in the case to Peters, allowing Scruggs' legal team to review it

The Commission has another complaint against DeLaughter from a breach of contract suit against Dixieland Products, Inc. Attorneys for Mike Kirk say DeLaughter gave advice on how the defendants should proceed to Peters. Peters later entered as counsel for the defendants.

Scruggs first made a name for himself in asbestos cases, representing shipyard workers. After that, his work led to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which has an estimated worth of $246 billion for the 52 participating territories and states. Attorneys earned $1.4 billion in the settlement.

After 2005's Hurricane Katrina, he grouped together a handful of law firms to create the Scruggs Katrina Group. The group represented insurance policyholders who believed their insurance companies were misrepresenting the amount of damage done to their properties by wind (covered by the policy) and water (covered by a federal program).

More than 600 cases were settled early in 2007, earning the SKG $26.5 million in attorneys fees. John Griffin Jones filed suit against Scruggs, claiming his firm was shortchanged when the money was divided.

Scruggs admitted that he gave the go-ahead for Balducci to offer $50,000 to Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey for a ruling that would have sent the dispute to an arbitration panel. Balducci pleaded guilty in November to the scheme, and his business partner Patterson soon followed.

Lackey contacted the FBI soon after Balducci's first mention of a bribe. Scruggs, 61, agreed to a maximum prison sentence of five years, pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge while the other five were dropped.

Balducci, Patterson and Scruggs Law Firm members Zach Scruggs and Sidney Backstrom all pleaded guilty.

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