OXFORD, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - Federal attorneys say they don't care how Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter ruled in a fees dispute involving incarcerated plaintiffs lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, just that he took a bribe.
U.S. Attorneys for the Northern District of Mississippi filed a motion Monday that says DeLaughter's attorneys should not be allowed to introduce evidence they say is irrelevant -- the decisions he made when he presided over Scruggs' case.
"The government anticipates sworn testimony that defendant Scruggs and his legal team did not seek rulings that were contrary to law," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Norman wrote.
"The $1 million (Timothy) Balducci, (Joey) Langston and others will testify they paid Ed Peters was to influence Judge DeLaughter, not only to obtain favorable rulings, but also rulings that would survive appellate scrutiny.
"Additionally, the law does not require proof that Judge DeLaughter ruled contrary to law in order to deprive the plaintiffs and the citizens of the State of Mississippi of their intangible right to fair and honest services."
DeLaughter presided over a dispute between Scruggs and a former business partner in Hinds County when he allowed himself to be persuaded by close friend Ed Peters, a former Hinds County district attorney who was paid $1 million by Scruggs' team to use the promise of a federal judgeship to influence DeLaughter, the government says.
Scruggs pleaded guilty to the scheme earlier this year, receiving an extra 2 1/2 years on his current five-year prison sentence for a separate judicial bribery scheme. His attorney in the case, Langston, received three years when he pleaded guilty to the scheme.
The five-count indictment, originally filed Jan. 6, alleges DeLaughter had improper ex parte communication with Peters and had urged Peters not to enter himself as counsel in the case. Scruggs' brother-in-law, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, would recommend DeLaughter for a federal judgeship, it is alleged.
Lott recommended someone else for the opening. DeLaughter pleaded not guilty.
More than 20 years ago, William Roberts Wilson, Alwyn Luckey and Scruggs each had their own stake in a group Scruggs started to file asbestos cases. Wilson and Luckey eventually sold their interests in more than 2,300 asbestos cases in agreements that were interpreted differently by all parties, and the two filed suit against Scruggs. Wilson filed his in 1994, and it dragged on for 12 years.
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 a trial would have been merely for bragging rights.
A special master, though, had recommended Wilson be awarded $15 million.
Scruggs was already incarcerated for attempting to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey with $50,000 for a favorable ruling in a dispute over Hurricane Katrina attorneys fees. His co-conspirators, former Langston law partner Timothy Balducci and Patterson, will be sentenced for their roles Friday.
Scruggs gained notoriety when his work helped lead to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which has an estimated worth of $246 billion for the 52 participating territories and states. Mississippi is not one of them, but has its own separate agreement.
The government says if DeLaughter's attorneys are allowed to introduce evidence his rulings weren't contrary to law, it would needlessly lengthen the amount of time it would take to sort the charges out.
"Evidence that all DeLaughter's rulings were not contrary to law could reasonably be expected to take weeks of trial time," the motion says.
"Because it would convey no useful information the government respectfully suggests that such evidence would be both irrelevant and immaterial and should therefore be excluded."
From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at email@example.com.