Richard F. “Dickie” Scruggs has a gentlemanly demeanor seemingly at odds with his profession as a take-no-prisoners trial litigator. A decade ago, the Mississippi native was riding high. Nobody in the plaintiffs’ bar struck as much fear in the hearts of the nation’s tobacco manufacturers as he. Now his career appears over, a casualty of scandal, though not of the sort that recently felled securities-industry scourge William Lerach.
This March 14, Scruggs, along with his Oxford, Miss. law firm partner, Sidney Backstrom, pleaded guilty in federal court to bribery charges. According to the indictment, the pair, along with three other persons, one of them Scruggs’ son, had conspired to offer cash payments totaling some $50,000 to Lafayette County (Mississippi) Circuit Judge Henry L. Lackey in return for a favorable ruling. The case concerned the distribution of attorneys’ fees in a settlement with State Farm Insurance over Hurricane Katrina-related claims. In return for Scruggs’ guilty plea, federal prosecutors are likely to drop other charges. His son and law partner, David Zachary Scruggs, also has been charged, but did not enter a plea, and is expected to go to trial starting March 31.
It seems strange that one of the richest, smartest lawyers in America would risk his career by orchestrating a bribe of a state circuit judge. But in the world of aggressive, high-flying litigators, reputation is everything, especially for those already on the A-list. One has to win, and consistently, to retain existing clients and gain new ones. And though Scruggs had a reputation as a giant killer, he’d seen significant setbacks this decade. Bribery seemed a low-risk way to get back on track.
Born and raised in Mississippi, Scruggs, now 61, could pass for a leading character in a John Grisham novel. Indeed, he’s allegedly the model for Grisham’s “King of Torts.” A former navy fighter pilot, Scruggs received a bachelor’s and a law degree from the University of Mississippi. He gave generously to his alma mater; Scruggs Hall, which houses the university’s music department, bears his name. A longtime Democrat, he knew how to make peace with Republicans, especially given that fellow native son Sen. Trent Lott, who recently stepped down, is his brother-in-law.
Dickie Scruggs is a populist, fighting for the Little Guy screwed over by the irresponsible and the powerful. In his reputation-building case, he represented workers at the Pascagoula shipyards who’d developed lung cancer and other illnesses from exposure to asbestos fiber. He followed that up with a series of successful class-action suits against the asbestos industry. But the main event was yet to come.