Who's Minding the Bench in Mississippi?

Not From a Grisham Novel, But One for the Casebook

By Adam Liptak
New York Times, March 15, 2004

In the Mississippi of John Grisham's legal thrillers, the courts are nests of chicanery and corruption. This has led more than a few indignant Mississippians, lawyers especially, to brand the author as a defamatory purveyor of lurid and improbable pulp.

But one recently issued text makes Mr. Grisham look as refined and restrained as Henry James: the federal indictment pending here against a sitting State Supreme Court justice, his former wife, two former judges and one of the state's most prominent lawyers.

Mississippi justice, the indictment suggests, is built on cozy relationships and fueled by bribes. This is a state, after all, where the Supreme Court justice in question, Oliver E. Diaz Jr., lived rent-free in a Biloxi condominium owned in part by the lawyer, Paul S. Minor.

The central charge against the two men is so convoluted that setting it out requires a diagram, if not a family tree: trying to influence a libel case against Mr. Minor's father, Mr. Minor guaranteed a loan to Justice Diaz's former wife.

The defendants have all pleaded not guilty. At a hearing here on March 5, Judge Henry T. Wingate of Federal District Court set an August trial date.

The defendants call the prosecution frivolous and politically motivated. Their defenses have several themes. One is that prosecutors have more proof of quid than of quo. Another is that Mississippi is a lightly populated state in which people know and help one another, a fact that should be applauded rather than prosecuted. A third is that what the defendants are accused of doing, everybody does.

In court on March 5, Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Mr. Minor, said the government's theory made routine conduct by lawyers and judges in Mississippi into a federal felony.

''That is a scary notion,'' Mr. Lowell said. ''We're going to need a whole lot more jail cells.''

Ruth Morgan, a federal prosecutor, responded that the charges were narrow and straightforward.

''This is a case about judges who were biased,'' Ms. Morgan said, ''who were not free from self-dealing, who used concealment and deceit.''

Business groups have long ranked Mississippi courts last in surveys of fairness and probity. Among the explanations for the ranking, legal experts say, are two forces that have driven Mississippi judicial politics in recent years: expensive judicial election campaigns financed largely by businesses and lawyers, and the battle over what businesspeople like to call tort reform.

''If you look at this in context,'' said Geri Palast, the executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a judicial reform organization, ''this is related to the major money wars going on in elected judicial races. Mississippi has been one of the targets of this huge tort reform war, and astronomical sums have been spent.''

The average Mississippi Supreme Court campaign cost $25,000 in 1990, Ms. Palast said. In 2002, it cost more than $1 million.

Justice Diaz raised more than $800,000 for his re-election campaign in 2000, according to court papers. Business groups spent more than $1 million in support of his opponent.

Mr. Minor, a former president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, contends that the United States attorney here, Dunn Lampton, a Republican, singled him out for prosecution for political reasons, because he is a big contributor to Democratic candidates and a vocal opponent of efforts to limit injury awards.

Mr. Minor's legal filings assert, in essence, that what he is accused of doing is so common in Mississippi that singling him out is selective prosecution.

His papers focus on what he says is similar conduct by Richard Scruggs, another prominent plaintiffs' lawyer in the state, though one with ties to the Republican Party. Mr. Scruggs and Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, are married to sisters.

Mr. Scruggs, according to Mr. Minor's court filings, guaranteed and paid off an $80,000 loan to Justice Diaz in 2000. Around that time, Mr. Scruggs's law firm was a party to two cases pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court, the filings continue, while Mr. Minor was not involved in any.

The indictment alleges that Mr. Minor guaranteed and helped pay off a $75,000 loan to Justice Diaz's former wife. But lawyers for Justice Diaz and Mr. Minor assert that the judge declined to participate in any case involving Mr. Minor.

The government's theory is that Justice Diaz reciprocated indirectly, by joining a unanimous ruling in favor of Mr. Minor's father, who was a defendant in a libel case.

''This case is frivolous,'' Robert B. McDuff, a lawyer for Justice Diaz, told Judge Wingate on March 5. ''Everyone has an interest in what happens to his father. But it's not a legal interest.''

In legal filings, Mr. Minor's lawyers surveyed the legal landscape here this way:

''When the Republican U.S. attorney looks at Republican supporter Mr. Scruggs's actions, he sees them in a way that avoids any criminal overtone. When the same U.S. attorney looks at Democrat Paul Minor's actions, he sees racketeering. This is just not right.''

Mr. Scruggs did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

In their filings, prosecutors said Mr. Minor's defense was based on ''speculation, innuendo and, most incredibly, news articles which can best be described as gossip and scuttlebutt.'' They rejected what they called Mr. Minor's ''wild theories of government misconduct.''

Mr. Minor is also accused of guaranteeing loans and making payments to two former lower-court judges, John H. Whitfield and Walter W. Teel.

Lawyers in Mississippi routinely appear before judges to whose campaigns they have made financial contributions.

''In a state like Mississippi, the population is the same as some large cities,'' said Ronald J. Rychlak, a law professor at the University of Mississippi. ''There's more opportunity for people to know one another and to have friendships that predate high office.''

Only last year, the American Tort Reform Association called several Mississippi counties ''judicial hellholes.'' But these days, the association offers the state guarded praise.

''You've seen a real change in the culture,'' said Michael Hotra, a spokesman for the tort reform group. ''Some of it is driven by suggestions of out-and-out corruption.''

Copyright 2004-2007, The New York Times Company

From: Adam Liptak, "Not From a Grisham Novel, But One for the Casebook," New York Times, March 15, 2004, http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F60F15FB345A0C768DDDAA0894DC404482#, accessed April 4, 2007.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

As with the Bodenheimer case, the Minor case teaches that the business and political relationships of judges must be scrutinized to determine whether there could be a conflict of interest between a judge and the litigant or attorney who comes before him or her.  It also suggests that the authority to decide questions of judicial impropriety should be removed from judges, who are usually self-serving, and placed in the hands of a truly independent body.

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