We’ve written about ”Kings of Tort: The True Story of Dickie Scruggs, Paul Minor and Two Decades of Political and Legal Manipulation in Mississippi,” a book co-authored by former Northern Mississippi Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Dawson and conservative blogger Alan Lange about the judicial bribery scandal that sent several prominent trial lawyers to prison.
The book has created a stir in Mississippi; Dawson was still working for the government when he agreed to write it. Dawson retired in January and returned to the office on an usual contract basis until June.
Last week, a federal appeals last week court threw out bribery convictions against plaintiff’s lawyer Paul Minor and two former Mississippi judges, and the remaining counts against them could fall after the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the honest-services fraud law.
While Dawson didn’t prosecute Minor — that case was headed by the Southern District of Mississippi - the reversal of his federal programs bribery conviction has ignited old debate about federal prosecutors in the state were targeting trial lawyers, who’ve been big donors to Democrats.
Minor, a successful Mississippi trial lawyer and friend of Dickie Scruggs, provided personal guarantees for loans to judges John Whitfield and Wes Teel, then used cash and third parties to pay them off. Scruggs, the imprisoned trial lawyer who earned fame and fortune taking on tobacco companies, served as an intermediary in paying off one Teel loan in full. Both judges were accused of ruling in Minor’s favor in civil cases, in return for the loan guarantees.
In erasing the federal programs bribery convictions, the Fifth Circuit held on Friday that judges who accepted the alleged bribes didn’t do so in connection with business or transactions of the Mississippi Administrative Office of the Courts, which pays for judges’ staff salaries. The AOC is state entity that had received federal funding and thus was the nexus for the prosecution’s federal programs bribery theory.
The Fifth Circuit ruling doesn’t exonerate Minor. Rather, it says the bribery scheme wasn’t a federal crime.
Whitfield used the loans to defray his campaign costs and to put a down payment on a house, the evidence at trial showed. Around that time, in 1998, Minor filed a personal injury suit in Whitfield’s court. He requested a bench trial — more than strange, considering the nature of the suit — and the two men sidestepped the court’s random assignment mechanism so Whitfield would hear the case. Minor won, reaping more than $3 million in “soft” damages for himself and his client.
The charges didn’t amount to a federal crime because the judges were allegedly bribed in connection with their judicial duties, not their administrative duties, the court held. Minor, Whitfield and Teel will be re-sentenced on all the remaining counts.
The Fifth Circuit preserved convictions related to honest-services fraud, but the Supreme Court was hostile to the law in arguments here last week. The honest-services statute makes it a crime to “deprive another of honest services.” Justice Antonin Scalia compared it to a law that says, “Nobody shall do bad things.”
Minor’s supporters have long maintained his prosecution was motivated by politics, and the opinion handed down on Friday was interpreted variously.
Lange, the co-author of Kings of Tort, said the ruling shot holes in the theory among liberals “who believe that his conviction resulted from some sort of conspiracy in a prior administration.”
“Obviously, the 5th Circuit didn’t agree,” Lange wrote.
Columbia law professor Scott Horton, who has written extensively about the Minor case, said even if Minor, Whitfield and Teel go free, the prosecutions have had major impact on the state. Campaign contributions to Democratic judicial candidates ceased after the cases were brought, allowing Republicans to take control of Mississippi’s judiciary. Horton described the political backdrop in this piece on Monday:
The Bush-era Justice Department’s case was an attempt to criminalize campaign funding practices in which an attorney supported the election campaign efforts of Democratic judges. No comparable cases were ever brought against Republican judges or those who financed them. The charges took the novel view that campaign contributions and campaign finance assistance can be viewed as bribes paid to judges. But this rationale was applied to only one side of the political ledger.
Minor was prosecuted Assistant U.S Attorneys Ruth Morgan and David Fulcher in Mississippi’s Southern District. Dawson and his partner, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Norman, were recently honored by the Justice Department for their work on the Scruggs and related cases.