For two years now, the Mississippi judicial system has been the focus of a tawdry web of revelations of unethical and illegal behavior. We may not have heard the last of it yet.
Former Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter was sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court in Aberdeen to 18 months in prison after admitting to having improper conversations with former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters and lying to the FBI about it. Peters had been hired by Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, the now imprisoned but once nationally prominent trial attorney, to influence DeLaughter in a case involving legal fees.
DeLaughter is the last major figure whose name had previously been associated with two judicial bribery cases involving Scruggs to be sentenced. Yet U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee declined to declare the judicial scandal cases closed when speaking with reporters after DeLaughter’s sentencing.
“I’ve got no announcement,” he said.
What comes next could hardly be any more shocking than what has already occurred, but then the one thing the last two years have taught is to expect the unexpected.
Scruggs has been at the center of it all, having drawn in others to participate in his corruption of a system that depends for its legitimacy on public confidence in its incorruptibility. That is the overriding tragedy of these scandals: The people’s trust in the honesty and efficacy of the courts is undermined.
The vast majority of lawyers and judges are honest people who adhere to their profession’s code of ethics — witness the example of Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City, who blew the whistle on the scandal. They don’t deserve the black eye this ongoing public spectacle has given them. But this is all the more reason for those who have tarnished that public trust to be held to account, and for the investigation to proceed until it unearths the last evidence of corruption.
These scandals played out over the last two years have included many personal targedies as well — ruined careers, the pain of family members, the impact on friends, neighbors, communities and institutions that had experienced the generosity of men like Scruggs and Joey Langston of Booneville. The good that they did doesn’t excuse the criminality, but it makes what has happened all the more regrettable.
That goes double for DeLaughter, once a Mississippi hero for his dogged pursuit of justice as a prosecutor of Byron De La Beckwith in one of Mississippi’s most notorious unresolved cases, the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
But past good deeds can’t excuse the later undermining of the system’s legal and ethical underpinnings, for DeLaughter or anyone else. Justice relies on that system’s veracity, which now must be re-established because of the actions of a few.
NEMS Daily Journal