OXFORD – Would-be attorneys in the University of Mississippi School of Law haven’t missed the messages coming from prosecutions of some of their school’s most prominent graduates.
Just days before Thanksgiving break, Professor Ben Cooper asked his Legal Profession class to tell him their reactions to two judicial bribery cases that have sent seven Ole Miss alumni to prison.
Among them, at the time of his indictment two years ago, was Richard “Dickie” Scruggs of Oxford, perhaps one of America’s most famous litigators.
Scruggs had built a legal reputation as a white knight, a giant-slayer with successful mass lawsuits against Big Asbestos and Big Tobacco, and as a defender of the Little Guy against Big Insurance after Hurricane Katrina.
For the students, they agree their good professional conduct is one way to begin to mend the harm that the Scruggs cases inflicted in terms of public perception.
“All you can do is be really aware of how you conduct yourself,” said Nathanial Clark of Iuka.”
He also sees the pressure these cases have put on his career, years ahead.
“My concern is that is puts mass torts in such a bad light for reasonable people … with real injuries that deserve their day in court,” said Clark, who aims one day to represent individuals with these kinds of problems. A tort is a civil wrong, other than breach of contract, that can be remedied with monetary damages.
Weren’t these cases about how much is too much? Cooper asked.
“These guys were fighting other lawyers about fees,” their teacher said. “Scruggs lost his way when he was thinking only about himself.”
One female student, who asked not to be identified, said she’s embarrassed by the bribery scandals, but says something good has come from the bad.
“These prosecutions exposed that it was going on, and now, will help lawyers … to say, ‘I won’t go there,’” she said.
Roun McNeal of Leakesville, a former Ole Miss Student Body president, also reminded the group of the courage shown by Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City, the target of the bribery conspiracy known to prosecutors as Scruggs I.
Scruggs and four others were accused of conspiring to bribe Lackey for his help in a lawsuit over divvying up legal fees from Katrina insurance cases.
But Cooper, whose class seeks to teach law students about ethical practice, asked them to think about the slippery slope of inappropriate, out-of-court conversations between attorneys and judges.
A Scruggs co-defendant, Timothy Balducci of New Albany, met privately with Lackey in the spring of 2007 and suggested he could be helpful, if the judge could help Scruggs.
Lackey ultimately reported the conversation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and worked with the FBI in the case.
Second guilty plea
Scruggs’ second guilty plea came to federal charges he bribed then-Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter for help with another legal-fees lawsuit. DeLaughter maintains he never was bribed, but he faces prison time for lying to the FBI.
“Before DeLaughter, couldn’t people say, ‘Well, at least judges are good?” McNeal suggested.
Phillip Londeree of Petal said some lawyers have helped reinforce public distrust with arrogant attitudes.
Clark said he hopes his own generation of attorneys can maintain reputations for integrity and help change current perceptions of the profession.
Lyle Gravatt of Tupelo, president of the law school student body, acknowledges that the scandals are a disappointment, but they haven’t changed his desire to become an attorney.
“I want to be sure to do everything I can to debunk the myth that lawyers are greedy and will do anything to get what they need,” he said.
“I want to go out there and fight for justice and serve my community and the people who need me.”
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal