HERRING/‘The House of Zeus’ and ‘Kings of Tort’ by Jim Herring
12/1/2010 6:00:00 PM
HERRING/‘The House of Zeus’ and ‘Kings of Tort’
Richard F. “Dickie” Scruggs in his hurricane-damaged house in Pascagoula in 2005. Jim Herring compares and contrasts “The Fall of the House of Zeus” by journalist Curtis Wilkie with “Kings of Tort.” (Photo by: Jim Wilson/The New York Times.)
I have now finished reading “The Fall of the House of Zeus” by Curtis Wilkie, who teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi, and is a fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss. Mr. Wilkie has been a prominent journalist for many years, serving early in his career as a reporter for the Clarksdale Press Register during Mississippi’s civil rights struggles that received national attention. During that time, he formed a fairly close relationship with the late Aaron Henry, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in Mississippi and now a historic figure in Mississippi history. Later, Wilkie was a national and international reporter for The Boston Globe, during which he covered everything from presidential elections to the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli conflicts in the Middle East.
In 1993, Mr. Wilkie returned to the South and lived for a period in New Orleans, near his childhood home in Pike County, Mississippi. Upon returning to the South, he wrote a nostalgic autobiographical account of his life in an excellent book entitled “Dixie,” which I re-read in preparation for writing this review of “Zeus.” In “Dixie,” Mr. Wilkie wrote about why he left his home state after his stay in Clarksdale, although he loved Mississippi, and why he eventually felt the call to return home to be with “his people,” as did Willie Morris. After re-reading “Dixie” and now having read “Zeus,” I am convinced that Curtis Wilkie does indeed love the Magnolia State and wants the best for its people, although he may disagree with many of us as to what is best. He strikes me as a person with whom you may disagree, but he is not disagreeable in the process. I also perceive that as a citizen of Oxford and in preparing for and writing “Zeus,” Mr. Wilkie was struck by the great personal tragedy that occurred in the rise and fall of Dickie Scruggs (called “Zeus” by his childhood classmates).
Painful to read for an attorney
Like many other Mississippians, I had been looking forward to reading “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” which also has a subtitle: “The Rise and Ruin of America’s Most Powerful Trial Lawyer.” As an attorney, a former judge, and as one active over the years in Mississippi politics, I am personally acquainted with many of the principle characters who appear in “Zeus,” and I found it painful at times to read. It is of course a book which chronicles the now familiar rise and fall of Dickie Scruggs and those around him. According to local new articles, the film rights to Wilkie’s historical account of the illegal activities of Scruggs and others, including a brief sketch of Scruggs’ early life, how he became a wealthy trial lawyer, and his later criminal convictions after participating in two separate attempts to improperly influence legal rulings of two Mississippi trial judges in two separate cases, have now been sold to a producer and author, Sam Haskell, with the blessing of Mr. Scruggs and family members.
About one year ago, I also read “Kings of Tort,” by web blogger Alan Lange and Tim Dawson, the 36-year federal prosecutor who served as lead counsel during the investigation and prosecution of the now famous Scruggs cases. “Zeus” and “Kings of Tort” give similar, yet strikingly different, accounts of the efforts of Dickie Scruggs and others to corrupt Mississippi’s judicial system. As an interested observer, I was naturally anxious to compare the two books, one written from the vantage point of the prosecutor who brought Scruggs and others to justice, and the other written from the vantage point of a prominent journalist and acknowledged friend of Dickie Scruggs. After carefully reading the Wilkie book and reviewing my notes after reading the Lange/Dawson book, I have concluded that both “Zeus” and “Kings of Tort” are important works. However, one cannot grasp the full implications or the gravity of the events described by the authors without reading (and studying) both of them, one right after the other. Both books should be required reading by every law student and certainly by every lawyer who aspires to practice law or serve as a member of the judiciary.
Finally, these two well-written books, which deal with the intricacies of human frailty and which clearly demonstrate how the lure of potential wealth and/or power can corrupt the best and the brightest among us, should also be read by anyone who votes in a judicial election or who has any influence over who is selected as a judge in any setting. The saga described in these books demonstrates, in crystal clear fashion, that who we allow to practice law or serve as judges is important and matters greatly.
The difference in the books
The differences in these two books are also crystal clear. One was written by a journalist and reflects his healthy skepticism of society in general and the motives of those who live among us. Thus, those who are portrayed as heroes in the Lange/Dawson book (i.e., Judge Henry Lackey, the prosecutors, etc.) do not come across as quite so heroic in the Wilkie book. On the other hand, the Lange/Dawson book (written from the vantage point of the prosecutor) chronicles the sordid events and the attempted bribes in black and white fashion, and it focuses on the major events as they unfolded legally. Wilkie’s account, while historically accurate, also draws heavily on his personal interviews, not only with Dickie Scruggs, but with the members of his family as well. The reader obviously gets to hear the Scruggs side of the story in much more detail when reading Wilkie’s book, because Wilkie conducted personal interviews with the Scruggs family, while Lange and Dawson were denied access to them. It is noteworthy that Wilkie also conducted an interview with Tom Dawson and that several photographs inserted in his book were supplied “as a courtesy of the Scruggs family.”
It is also noteworthy that “Kings of Tort” focuses not only on the Dickie Scruggs cases, but also spends a considerable amount of time focusing on the cases involving Paul Minor (a wealthy trial lawyer on the Gulf Coast) and on the federal charges against him involving his attempts, through financial contributions, to improperly influence the decisions of Gulf Coast Chancellor Wes Teel and Circuit Judge John Whitfield. “The Fall of the House of Zeus” spends little time on the Paul Minor cases, other than to describe Minor’s relationship with Scruggs.
Both books spend considerable time describing the ultimately successful efforts of Scruggs, attorney Joey Langston, former State Auditor Steve Patterson and former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters to corrupt Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter and to improperly get him to issue a favorable ruling for Scruggs in an important case involving the division of legal fees. Wilkie, however, focuses much more clearly on the shadowy activities of P. L. Blake in assisting Dickie Scruggs, and spends more time describing the relationship of Scruggs with his brother-in-law, former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and others who Scruggs described as being a part of “the force,” an allegedly shadowy network including P.L. Blake, that exists in Mississippi and Washington. Significantly, Wilkie also writes extensively about the political involvement of then-senator and now Vice President Joe Biden with Steve Patterson and Joey Langston.
In the “Preface” to his book, Mr. Wilkie described the Scruggs saga as perhaps “the story of my lifetime.” I believe that Mr. Wilkie correctly concluded that the Scruggs story “was a remarkable story of personal treachery” with “ramifications that extended to high levels in Washington.” However, I question Wilkie’s implication that “enormous professional hatred within the legal community” and a “zealous prosecution” were somehow contributing causes of the tragedy that is so clearly outlined in his book.
Epic, high stakes battles
The epic legal battles between Scruggs against Charles Merkle, Alwyn Luckey, Bob Wilson, Johnny Jones and Grady Tollison, which are portrayed by Wilkie, as well as by Lange and Dawson, were, to be sure, high stakes and ugly affairs. However, such competition and personal enmity among legal participants are not unique in American jurisprudence. In fact, they are played out at various levels in courtroom dramas, in big towns and small towns, all across America every day. It is not unusual for a defendant to complain that he has been the subject of a “zealous prosecution” or that the judge was too harsh and unbending during the sentencing phase of a criminal trial. The American legal system is well-equipped to protect the public interest and the rights of a defendant in these trial situations, so long as fair, impartial, well-grounded, and courageous judges preside over such trials.
What makes the Scruggs cases such high drama is not only the big money or the political ramifications involved, but the fact that those that went to jail mounted brazen, full-scale assaults (not once, but twice) on the American judicial system by attempting to bribe judges to achieve desired results. Just as John Grisham’s novel “The Appeal” is disturbing because it unveils the seamy side of judicial elections in Mississippi and elsewhere, “The Fall of the House of Zeus” fully exposes the activities of a group that totally lost respect for the American judicial system. It is noteworthy that Lange and Dawson in “Kings of Tort” expressed their belief that Scruggs, Paul Minor and the others around them convinced themselves that their opponents were “evil incarnate,” and that their ends justified their means. However, in the eyes of those who believe that the American judicial system is worth saving, those described by Wilkie, Lange and Dawson, who attacked and tried to compromise that system, are the ones that became evil in the process.
Redemption is possible
Redemption is always possible in this world, and it is true, as stated by Sam Haskell, that all of us make mistakes. However, the lessons of the Scruggs cases are greater than what will ultimately happen to Dickie Scruggs or the others. In order for our fragile system of justice to remain intact, and in order for the general public to maintain the vital and necessary confidence in our judicial system, people like Dickie Scruggs must be dealt with harshly in order to discourage others like him from attempting to bribe judges.
Hopefully, any motion picture that is produced based upon “The Fall of the House of Zeus” will primarily dwell on the tragic assault on our judicial system which was perpetrated by Dickie Scruggs and his associates, rather than adopting a storyline emphasizing the tragic human interest story also described in Mr. Wilkie’s book.
Jim Herring, a Canton attorney, is former chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party. See his blog at http://www.jimherring.ms.