A Cautionary Tale: The Epic Fall of Dickie Scruggs

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 19, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

America romanticizes the Southern trial lawyer, thanks, in no small part, to literature. From Atticus Finch to the Grisham-imagined protagonist du jour, we cheer for these characters. We want to be them.

There’s a definite archetype for the Southern literary lawyer: He comes from humble beginnings, and finds success by fighting for the little guy. (And yes, I intentionally used the masculine pronoun in that description because most of these fictionalized attorneys are men.)

Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, the famed Mississippi tort lawyer, not only embodied the archetype, he’s partly responsible for establishing it.

Dickie Scruggs is a legal-legend-turned-cautionary-tale on the Gulf Coast. He became one of the wealthiest men in the Magnolia State by suing the asbestos industry and Big Tobacco, and he was depicted in The Insider before he pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey in a legal fees dispute.

(Judge Lackey reported the bribe offer, leading to Scruggs' downfall, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reports.)

When members of Scruggs's legal team began cooperating with the government's investigation in the Lackey judicial bribery scheme, investigators discovered a second judicial bribery scheme involving Hinds County Judge Robert "Bobby" DeLaughter. Scruggs eventually pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting honest-services mail fraud in that case.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction last week.

Scruggs was sentenced to seven years in prison for the DeLaughter episode, concurrent with a prior-five year term for conspiring to bribe Judge Lackey. Though he has already served part of that time, he had been free on a $2 million bond pending the Fifth Circuit DeLaughter episode appeal, according to The Associated Press.

He has asked to return to prison to complete his sentence, though he may continue to pursue his appeal, the AP reports.

Scruggs could still prevail in his criminal appeals on technicalities, but I can't imagine that any state bar will ever readmit him to practice. His greed destroyed his career and his reputation as one of the most successful lawyers of our time. And he has no one to blame but himself.

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