By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The head of the House of Zeus takes his case for innocence to the same U.S. District Court judge who declared him guilty three years ago.
Attorneys for former Oxford attorney Richard F. “Dickie” Scruggs, who in college days dubbed himself “Zeus,” seek to prove he pleaded guilty in 2009 to a crime that doesn’t exist.
The man who sits in judgment of that legal point and others, Senior Judge Glen H. Davidson, says Scruggs must prove his actual innocence – that he did not attempt to improperly influence then-Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, who presided over a legal-fees lawsuit against Scruggs and others.
Oxford journalist Curtis Wilkie penned the drama of 65-year-old Scruggs’ highs and lows in a 2010 book, “The Fall of the House of Zeus.”
Monday, the pro and con forces converge in Oxford to do legal battle in the case, which brought a second shockwave to the state’s legal system nearly a year after the famed litigator pleaded guilty to a 2007 judicial bribery scheme, that one aimed at Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City.
Scruggs, still serving prison time for both convictions, has assembled an all-star legal team, including constitutional law expert Samuel Issacharoff with New York University School of Law and former professor at Harvard, Columbia and University of Texas law schools.
At the heart of the matter is this: Was Scruggs’ offer to suggest DeLaughter for a federal judgeship a “thing of value” or was it merely a common American political practice by a well-connected lawyer?
Was it you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours? Or was it a flattering offer, which Scruggs knew likely would go nowhere?
A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Skilling v. USA is the core of Scruggs’ contentions that he is not guilty in this case. Skilling significantly narrowed U.S. honest-service crimes to just bribery and kickbacks.
And so, when Scruggs contends his flattering suggestion to DeLaughter was not a bribe, he is contending he did not violate the law that prohibits anyone from depriving citizens of a public official’s honest services.
The Skilling decision also is important to Scruggs’ son Zach’s quest to have his 2008 conviction vacated for pleading guilty to knowing about an illegal conversation with Lackey but not reporting it.
While the circumstances of the cases are very different, to this point the court demands they both prove their innocence.
Zach’s attorneys recently appealed his case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, after it was rejected in Oxford by Senior Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr.
Come Monday, an entourage of witnesses could be on the playbill for courtroom drama.
No doubt, former Booneville attorney Joey Langston is a key figure in the story. Scruggs hired Langston and his then-associate Timothy Balducci to help him with the lawsuit Wilson v. Scruggs, over which DeLaughter presided for years.
Somewhere along the way, the Scruggs side decided it needed an emissary to DeLaughter to even the playing field from Roberts Wilson’s use of longtime DeLaughter friend and Jackson attorney William Kirksey. The solution, they agreed, was Ed Peters, former Hinds County district attorney and DeLaughter’s mentor, his former boss and father-figure.
Langston and Balducci-partner Steve Patterson set about to bring Peters on board for a $1 million deal.
Along the way, the federal judgeship issue came up and Scruggs had Langston tell Peters to ask if DeLaughter would like for Scruggs to mention that interest to Scruggs’ brother-in-law, then-U.S. Sen. Trent Lott.
Therein lies the possible witness list.
Langston pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe DeLaughter.
Balducci, who’s testified he was just along for the ride, pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Lackey.
DeLaughter pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about inappropriate conversations with Peters. Friday, the former judge asked the court to throw out a subpoena to compel his appearance at the hearing.
Kirksey, who’s not been charged with anything, could offer a perspective on the Wilson lawsuit.
Peters gave up his law license and got immunity from prosecution in exchange for grand jury testimony in the case.
Patterson, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Lackey, can offer insights from the Langston association.
Now-powerhouse lobbyist Trent Lott will be called upon to tell his view of Scruggs’ suggestion and DeLaughter’s reactions to the possibility his name could go on a list for nomination to a federal judgeship.
Former Lott staff attorney Hugh Gamble also is likely to testify about their contacts with DeLaughter.
DeLaughter, a Democrat, never made it on any list of possible federal judges during the Republican administration of George W. Bush.
Prosecutors are likely to stress that it was not the true outcome of the suggestion but rather what DeLaughter believed could happen with Scruggs’ help.
If Davidson fails to accept what Scruggs’ legal team offers, there’s little doubt the case will soon follow the path of the younger Scruggs’.
With few, if any, appeals so far related to Skilling, court-watchers expect the new legal issues to work their way toward the U.S. Supreme Court.
But that’s no automatic for consideration, despite constitutional issues raised this week.