n The issues run parallel to a criminal case against the Oxford attorneys.
BY PATSY R. BRUMFIELD
OXFORD – The judge in a Lafayette County Circuit Court civil case will examine criminal allegations against famed plaintiffs’ lawyer Richard Scruggs and two others to understand how one was affected by the other.
At issue: The Jones case – a lawsuit filed by Jackson law firm Jones, Funderburg, Sessions, Peterson & Lee PLLC against Scruggs, his law firm, attorney Don Barrett of Jackson and his law firm, and two other firms, Nutt & McAlister PLLC and Lovelace Law Firm P.A.
The Jones plaintiffs say they want their fair share of $26.5 million in legal fees from Hurricane Katrina settlements in lawsuits they helped secure.
The twist: The Jones case was the one, presided over by Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City, which the U.S. government claims a bribery attempt was made by Scruggs, his law-partner son Zach and their legal associate Sidney Backstrom.
The Scruggs Law Firm of Oxford wanted Lackey to send the Jones case to be resolved by arbitration.
A secondary but key ruling by Coleman brings all the defendants into the hearing on equal footing of responsibility with the Scruggs firm and Scruggs himself.
Arbitration, a legal mediation, was what Tuesday’s hearing in Lafayette County was about.
The Scruggs side, led by Oxford attorney Cal Mayo, wanted Judge Coleman to finalize a pending order to compel arbitration.
The Jones side, led by Oxford attorney Grady Tollison, wanted the judge to hold off on deciding the arbitration issue until Coleman could consider how the Scruggs-Backstrom criminal case has affected their chances in the civil case.
Tuesday, in the Lafayette County Chancery Building, Coleman decided the Jones issues deserved a hearing on the evidence. When that will be was not known immediately.
But Coleman said it certainly will be after the three men go on trial in the bribery case set to start March 31. The Scruggses and Backstrom maintain their innocence.
The question Tuesday morning was: What power does the court have to issue sanctions in this matter?
In his opening remarks, Tollison gave an impassioned pitch to Coleman for the expanded consideration.
“It is very important that a message be sent to the public, in particular to lawyers and the judiciary, that this type of conduct will not be tolerated,” said Tollison about allegations of attempting to bribe a judge.
“The honor and dignity of the profession has suffered a blow,” he insisted. “It can only be righted by the jurisdiction where it happened.”
Mayo’s argument lay with the question of whether the court had the authority as a sanction to withhold arbitration. He contended such action would conflict with federal arbitration standards.
In the end, Coleman said his ruling had nothing to do with any preconceived ideas about the criminal charges against some of the defendants.
“This court has the authority to take action to punish misconduct,” he noted.
To ignore the misconduct allegations or to proceed with arbitration would be a “win-win” for the defendants, Coleman observed.
An evidentiary hearing will seek to determine where the truth lies, he said.
Contact Daily Journal news editor
Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596