Saturday, March 1, 2008
To say things have been going downhill for famed torts lawyer Dickie Scruggs over the past few months is quite an understatement. His legal entanglements began with a criminal contempt charge in the Northern District of Alabama for his handling of documents subject to a judicial order, and then got a whole lot worse with his indictment in the Northern District of Mississippi, along with his son, for an alleged attempted bribe of a state court judge. Two co-defendants have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, and tapes of various conversations have been released that do not put Scruggs in a very flattering light. Virtually all of his pre-trial motions have been denied, and the government will introduce evidence of a second alleged influencing of a state court judge. Finally, though, a ray of sunshine, if you will: Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson dismissed the criminal contempt charge (see opinion below).
The criminal contempt charge arose out of litigation involving State Farm, the object of Scruggs' Hurricane Katrina law suits, that was before U.S. District Judge William Acker, who has been after Scruggs for giving documents sealed in that litigation to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to conduct a criminal investigation of State Farm. Judge Vinson certainly didn't give Scruggs a free pass in dismissing the charge, noting that "there is a cloud of impropriety surrounding what Scruggs did and the nature of his eleventh hour agreement with Hood. It is certainly understandable that Judge Acker would attempt to hold him accountable. Perhaps there are ethical issues that should be examined. But, the question is not whether Scruggs acted ethically; the question is whether he can be held criminally responsible in a contempt proceeding." Getting mad is one thing, but getting even through a criminal contempt doesn't cut it when the person is not a party to the underlying lawsuit nor counsel in the litigation. Judge Vinson determined that "[f]or jurisdictional purposes, the undisputed facts are that Scruggs was not a party, nor was he an attorney-of-record or at any time make an appearance in the Renfroe case , , , it is axiomatic that courts only have power and jurisdiction to enjoin parties before the court." Federal judges may well view their power as reaching the blue sky or the ends of the earth, but it doesn't always work that way.
While this is certainly good news for Scruggs, it probably only eliminates a case that was not much more than a distraction compared to the attempted bribery trial. The criminal contempt statute, 18 U.S.C. Sec 402, limits the prison term for out-of-court violations to no more than six months, along with a $1,000 fine, which does not compare to the longer sentence Scruggs could receive in the Mississippi case. Al Davis is famed for intoning "Just win, baby!" but this one is only the JV game -- or the undercard for fans of the sweet science. The WSJ Law Blog has the background here. (ph)