Analysis: Rethinking judge/lawyer relationships

By Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press

JACKSON — The corruption case involving Paul Minor and two former Harrison County jurists has changed forever the relationships between Mississippi judges and lawyers, a federal public defender says.

“Every judge in Mississippi has looked at what happened to Mr. (Wes) Teel and Mr. (John) Whitfield and rethought their relationship with attorneys,” George Lucas said recently.

Lucas, who represented Teel, said that “in terms of deterrence … this case has been a success.”

Minor was once one of Mississippi’s most politically connected plaintiffs’ lawyers. Teel was a chancery judge and Whitfield was a circuit judge, both in coastal Harrison County. The three men were re-sentenced this past week in a judicial corruption case, and each got a reduction in sentence because the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out some charges in their 2008 convictions. All got credit for time served, plus good time determined by the government.

Prosecutors said Minor guaranteed loans for the judges, then used cash and third parties to pay off the debts. Judges then ruled in his favor in civil cases. Minor has said the loans were meant to help friends in times of need and that he expected nothing in return.

Prosecutors said all three took extraordinary steps to hide the loans.

Phillip W. Broadhead, a law professor at the University of Mississippi, said students get intensive instruction on ethics and responsibility from the very first day. He said the ethics program was developed by the Mississippi Bar and the Mississippi Judicial College.

He said the legal fallout from the dealings of Minor and Richard “Dickie” Scruggs of Oxford with judges prompted Ole Miss to “focus on getting to these law students before they get any bad habits.”

Scruggs and others pleaded guilty to a scheme to bribe a north Mississippi state judge to rule in their favor in a dispute with other lawyers.

Broadhead leads the Criminal Appeals Clinic, which since 2002 has represented indigent defendants in criminal appeals before the Mississippi Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. The third-year law students prepare and file briefs and have often argued cases before those courts.

“Professionalism and ethics is a large part of what I intend to impart to them,” Broadhead said. “In their relationship with judges it is important not only what they can and cannot to do but also what they should and should not do. “Professionalism is an aspiration to improve society and improve the law. You simply can’t get that done with improper relationships between judges and lawyers.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Fulcher, who prosecuted the Minor case, said Minor, Teel and Whtifield put justice in Mississippi up for sale.

“There was a corrupt bargain; then there was a corrupt decision,” he said.

Fulcher said the trio’s actions and what they were convicted of continues to “reverberate throughout the (legal) system.”

State Sen. Joey Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall and chairman of the Senate Judiciary A Committee, said lawmakers can do little to regulate contact between lawyers and judges. He said the Mississippi Bar and the state Supreme Court have rules both groups must follow.

“You do have to compensate judges for the work they do. Most are seasoned attorneys who can make two, three, four or five times as much in private practice,” said Fillingane, an attorney.

Fillingane said the Senate this year passed a generous pay raise for judges but it was struck down in the House. He said it was not politically popular to raise salaries in difficult economic times.

Fillingane said he was not saying Teel and Whitfield “broke the law because they were underpaid,” but it can be a factor when such impropriety occurs.

“If you want to regulate the environment in which these kind of temptations can occur, compensate them to where they can send their kids to school and can pay their mortgage,” Fillingane said. “I take the holistic approach — that regulation, compensation and transparency can create an environment where good people can work and one that roots out the bad actors.”