JACKSON — Disbarred lawyer Paul Minor and two judges he’s accused of bribing hope an unrelated case before the U.S. Supreme Court will help them get out of prison.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has said the federal statute for honest services fraud is too broad, joking that it could make a crime out of an employee phoning in sick so he could slip off to a ball game.
A recent hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court has many legal experts believing the high court is poised to strike down the statute, which makes it illegal for public officials to fraudulently deprive constituents of honest services.
Some legal observers say such a decision would help Minor and former Mississippi Gulf Coast judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield.
In March 2007, a federal jury in Mississippi convicted the three on corruption charges because Minor had helped to guarantee or pay off loans of the judges, who heard some of his cases. It was a scheme, prosecutors said, to influence the judges’ decisions and deprive the state of their honest service.
All three were convicted of bribery, conspiracy and fraud, and Minor also was found guilty of racketeering.
If justices throw out the statute, it would be the second victory in a row for the Mississippi trio, which saw a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently toss out all their bribery convictions after finding a lack of federal jurisdiction.
Matt Steffey, professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, said the application of the federal bribery statute to a state court judge whose salary and office receives no federal funds is “shaky at best.”
He said he believes Minor and the others would go free if the high court finds the honest services statute is unconstitutional.
“There is some possibility that prosecutors will say the claim is procedurally barred,” he said.
The 5th Circuit ruling on the bribery charges means the men could be sentenced again on the remaining charges. It’s not clear how much the reversal will reduce Minor’s sentence because he got the most time for a racketeering conviction, which was upheld.
One of Minor’s lawyers, Hiram Eastland Jr. of Greenwood, said knocking out bribery and honest services would effectively do away with the racketeering conviction for Minor, too, because the charge relies on acts that include these alleged crimes.
U.S. Attorney Don Burkhalter of Jackson declined to comment on the trio’s case.
Defense lawyers long have believed the honest services statute goes too far. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case heard recently by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chicago lawyer Thomas Durkin, who represented former Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in an unrelated case, said the statute “puts way too much discretion in the hands of federal prosecutors.”
DeLaughter insisted on his innocence in response to honest services charges and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to the FBI about how many conversations he had regarding a pending lawsuit with his one-time boss, former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters, who has acknowledged he was secretly working for the legal team representing multimillionaire Dickie Scruggs, another wealthy Mississippi lawyer serving time for corruption.
The Associated Press