Judge DeLaughter may be suspended

John O'Brien Mar. 20, 2008, 10:00am


JACKSON, Miss. - Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter, one of the players in an alleged judicial bribery scheme conducted by famed trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, may soon be suspended from his job.

The Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance on Wednesday asked the state Supreme Court to suspend DeLaughter, who has had two complaints filed against him because of his work in an attorneys fees dispute involving Scruggs.

The request was reported in the Biloxi Sun-Herald.

"Due to the serious nature of the judicial misconduct and the charges in these two inquiries, in addition to finding probable cause to file a formal complaint, on March 14 the Commission further voted to petition the Mississippi Supreme Court for the interim suspension of the respondent, Circuit Court Judge Bobby D. DeLaughter, so long as (the two inquiries) are pending," the notice says.

DeLaughter presided over a dispute between Scruggs and former partner William Roberts Wilson, Jr. The two teamed up on asbestos cases and disagreed over the amount of fees Wilson was owed after he sold his interest in the enterprise.

A special master recommended DeLaughter rule Wilson was owed $15 million, but DeLaughter instead decided in 2006 that Wilson was already paid in full when Scruggs gave him $1.5 million.

Booneville attorney Joey Langston, who represented Scruggs in the latter part of the case, pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe DeLaughter with consideration for a federal judgeship. Scruggs' brother-in-law, then-Sen. Trent Lott, could make recommendations to President Bush.

Ultimately, after what has been described as a "courtesy call," Lott gave his support to another candidate.

Wilson attorneys Vicki Slater and William Kirksey filed a complaint against DeLaughter. The Commission alleges that Langston, then-partner Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson used former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters as an intermediary to communicate with DeLaughter.

The complaint says DeLaughter showed an opinion he planned to enter in the case to Peters, allowing Scruggs' legal team to review it

The Commission has another complaint against DeLaughter from a breach of contract suit against Dixieland Products, Inc. Attorneys for Mike Kirk say DeLaughter gave advice on how the defendants should proceed to Peters. Peters later entered as counsel for the defendants.

Scruggs first made a name for himself in asbestos cases, representing shipyard workers. After that, his work led to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which has an estimated worth of $246 billion for the 52 participating territories and states. Attorneys earned $1.4 billion in the settlement.

After 2005's Hurricane Katrina, he grouped together a handful of law firms to create the Scruggs Katrina Group. The group represented insurance policyholders who believed their insurance companies were misrepresenting the amount of damage done to their properties by wind (covered by the policy) and water (covered by a federal program).

More than 600 cases were settled early in 2007, earning the SKG $26.5 million in attorneys fees. John Griffin Jones filed suit against Scruggs, claiming his firm was shortchanged when the money was divided.

Scruggs is admitted that he gave the go-ahead for Balducci to offer $50,000 to Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey for a ruling that would have sent the dispute to an arbitration panel. Balducci pleaded guilty in November to the scheme, and his business partner Patterson soon followed.

Lackey contacted the FBI soon after Balducci's first mention of a bribe. Scruggs, 61, agreed to a maximum prison sentence of five years, pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge while the other five were dropped.

Balducci, Patterson and Scruggs Law Firm member Sidney Backstrom all pleaded guilty. Only Scruggs' son Zach remains, and his trial is scheduled for March 31.

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