OXFORD, Miss. - Federal judge Neal Biggers was either making a joke about Mississippi lawyers or simply voicing his opinion on a rule that requires defendants like prominent trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs to employ local counsel Wednesday.
"I'm not sure that's a good rule anyway," Biggers said shortly after rejecting a motion that asked if Oxford attorney Kenneth Coghlan could join the Scruggs defense team.
Biggers surely wasn't having fun at the expense of Coghlan, whom he spoke highly of during the hearing. But for now, Scruggs will have to do without local counsel as he fights charges that he and four others conspired to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey with $40,000 in a dispute over $26.5 million in attorneys fees.
Attorney Timothy Balducci has already pleaded guilty to the same charges. Booneville attorney Joey Langston, once Scruggs' counsel, has admitted guilt in a scheme where Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby Delaughter was offered consideration for a federal judgeship in exchange for a favorable ruling in another attorneys fees dispute allegedly involving Scruggs.
Coghlan once represented former state Auditor Steven Patterson, who pleaded guilty last week to the Lafayette County scheme. He sat with Scruggs among the spectators of Wednesday's hearing.
Scruggs' lead attorney, John Keker of San Francisco, told Biggers that no conflict of interest will exist if Patterson should testify against Scruggs and need to be cross-examined. He said all those involved were coached on the potential "pitfalls and problems" and both Scruggs and Patterson had signed waivers.
"Hopefully, we can keep him," Keker said of Coghlan.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Dawson agreed that Coghlan is a fine lawyer, but said the potential for conflict was too great. Biggers agreed, even though Keker said he would personally perform the cross of Patterson.
"For an attorney to represent a defendant after previously representing another defendant in the same case, only to be later called upon to be part of that defense team's cross-examination... certainly does not pass the smell test," Biggers said.
"He's not the only attorney in the local area, the regional area, who can assist Mr. Scruggs and his group of attorneys."
For the time being, Biggers said he will not require a local attorney sign any motions submitted by Keker.
Also Wednesday, Tony Farese, counsel for Langston, was finally let go of his obligation to defend Scruggs' son Zach, who faces the same charges. His initial motion to withdraw was denied because Zach Scruggs never provided a substitute.
Todd Graves will now represent Zach Scruggs. He asked Biggers to allow him some time to familiarize himself.
"We need some time to delve into this," he said, to which Biggers replied that he already has a month until the pretrial motion deadline.