Dickie Scruggs Loses Honest Services Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 12, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If Dickie Scruggs had closed up shop after his wins against the asbestos industry and Big Tobacco, he could be enjoying a gorgeous Oxford, Mississippi spring, browsing in the best bookstore in America, and rolling around in the millions he collected as one of the top plaintiffs’ lawyers of his time.

Instead, Scruggs decided that he really needed a win a fee-sharing dispute and persuaded Hinds County Judge Robert “Bobby” DeLaughter to tip the scales of justice in his favor.

Granted, the DeLaughter judicial bribery scandal wasn’t the only time Scruggs reportedly bribed a judge. It’s just the case we’re discussing today because the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Scruggs’ convictions in the DeLaughter matter this week.

The Fifth Circuit explains:

DeLaughter coveted a federal Article III judgeship more than anything else; as the brother-in-law of then-United States Senator Trent Lott, Scruggs could influence the person who sent candidates to the President. In early 2006, Scruggs retained Ed Peters, a close friend and mentor of DeLaughter's, as a secret go-between who conveyed an offer: If DeLaughter would help Scruggs win the Wilson Case, Scruggs would recommend DeLaughter to Lott for a district court judgeship.

DeLaughter upheld his end of the bargain, issuing rulings so favorable to Scruggs that even Dickie's own attorneys worried they would not be affirmed on appeal. The government eventually got wind of the arrangement, and charged Scruggs and DeLaughter with conspiracy to commit federal program bribery and aiding and abetting honest-services mail fraud.

Though Scruggs pleaded guilty to a superseding information charging him with aiding and abetting honest-services mail fraud, the information only described how Scruggs attempted to influence DeLaughter with a phone call to Senator Lott; it didn't explain what DeLaughter did for Scruggs "in return."

Following the Supreme Court's decision in Skilling v. U.S., which limited the application of the honest-services statute to quid pro quo bribery and kickback schemes, Scruggs moved to vacate his sentence. He argued that, in light of Skilling, he wasn't guilty of a crime because he didn't admit to bribing DeLaughter.

The district court concluded that, by pleading guilty, Scruggs had procedurally defaulted on that claim. The court denied Scruggs' motion, noting that he had shown neither actual innocence nor cause and prejudice.

Finding that the record overwhelmingly established evidence of a bribe between Scruggs and DeLaughter, and that the honest-services statute isn't constitutionally overbroad, the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

After his plea agreement in this case, Scruggs was sentenced to seven years in prison, concurrent with a prior-five year term for conspiring to bribe another judge in another fee dispute. Scruggs has already served part of that time, but he's been free on a $2 million bond pending this appeal, according to the AP.

Scruggs should get his favorite spring jumpsuit ready; barring a Supreme Court petition or divine intervention, it looks like he's returning to jail.

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