BOOK REVIEW: The nature and quality of justice

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF ZEUS: THE RISE AND RUIN OF AMERICA’S MOST POWERFUL TRIAL LAWYER
By Curtis Wilkie
Crown Publishers, $25.99, 385 pages

“The Fall of the House of Zeus” chronicles the demise of Richard F. “Dickie” Scruggs, the very rich former personal-injury lawyer from Mississippi who is in federal prison in Kentucky for attempting to bribe two judges who were presiding over lawsuits brought against Scruggs by lawyers who claimed he had cheated them out of fees. According to author Curtis Wilkie, Scruggs’ fraternity brothers at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) nicknamed him Zeus because he thought of himself as a Greek god.

Mr. Wilkie is a “progressive” journalist from Mississippi and a fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss. Though the book is intended to be a dramatic account of the rise and fall of Scruggs as “America’s most powerful trial lawyer,” it soon becomes apparent that he is too uninteresting a person to carry 340 pages. However, as a product of the problems confronting our society in law, ethics, political corruption and personal values, Scruggs is a more than adequate vehicle.

Scruggs essentially was a businessman specializing in the mass marketing of personal-injury claims. He was not a trial lawyer because he didn’t try cases. For years, personal-injury or plaintiffs’ lawyers referred to themselves as “trial lawyers” and belonged to the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. Because of adverse publicity, the organization changed its name to the American Association for Justice. Now members conveniently can be known as “justice lawyers” instead of “trial lawyers.”

So Scruggs as a “trial lawyer” and as a “justice lawyer” made fortunes through mass tort actions involving asbestos and tobacco. The asbestos activities are rather boring, but the tobacco case is very interesting; it is essentially political rather than legal and involves many strange bedfellows. Scruggs and his good buddy former state Attorney General Mike Moore, put together a host of characters that would be hard to top. Start with Scruggs’ brother-in-law, former Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, and add the likes of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and members of his family, Sen. John McCain, Al Gore and many others.

Through, shall we say, the processes of give and take and with the very valuable help of local, hometown state judge William Myers, Scruggs pulled off perhaps the largest legal robbery in the history of our country. Big Tobacco, in June, 1997, agreed to pay $368 billion over a 25-year period “to compensate for health costs related to smoking.” Mr. Wilkie states that Scruggs didn’t get the $848 million he was said to have gotten. “The lick was never that big, but far more than most Americans would ever earn in a lifetime.” Really?

But Scruggs could only have so many yachts and planes and houses without getting bored. He has no interest in noncommercial matters such as the arts or literature. Hurricane Katrina provided his next opportunity. He decided to take on the insurance companies, particularly State Farm, with the help of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. Scruggs followed the same pattern he had used in the tobacco case. In that litigation, he had bought Merrell Williams, who had stolen thousands of documents belonging to Brown and Williamson tobacco company. According to Mr. Wilkie, “For the 1,500 pages Williams provided, Scruggs would eventually buy Williams a house and a car, and pay him more than $2 million.”

In the Katrina litigation, Scruggs got hold of insurance adjusters who had copied and stolen documents belonging to the company. He put them on his payroll and obtained the incriminating material.

The last two-thirds of the book describes the bribery activities that brought down the House of Zeus. Scruggs, his son Zach and several other lawyers were indicted, disbarred and imprisoned for attempting to bribe and illegally influence two state judges in cases involving distribution of fees.

The entire account involves very dirty business and shows just how far down law and politics have sunk in recent decades. Though set in Mississippi, it is a nationwide story in varying degrees. Not that long ago, civil law was a true service profession and those who were served were the clients, to whom the litigated matters belonged. But apparently, the money to be had was not nearly enough to satisfy many lawyers, so the Scruggses emerged and found ways to use claims belonging to others to enrich themselves. A mutually profitable union took place between lawyers and politicians.

For lawyers, money meant power; for politicians, power meant money. Corruption produced both money and power. For the most part, the two groups lived happily and prosperously together. Now and then a slip occurs and apologists struggle to explain the circumstances. Why would a “billionaire” or even just a “multimillionaire” attempt to bribe a judge and risk the loss of everything?

Mr. Wilkie tries to understand why his friend Scruggs did what he did. He even suggests that maybe Scruggs’ actions were caused in part by the ingestion of the prescription drug Fioricet. Perhaps Scruggs, before being disbarred, should have filed suit against the manufacturer for not listing “bribery” as a side effect. In my opinion, Scruggs’ actions are natural to his character and not induced by medication. He is not an honest man, but he was perhaps Ole Miss’ most generous benefactor, which might explain why former Gov. William Winter, former Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat, and then law school dean Sam Davis wrote supportive pre-sentencing letters on Scruggs’ behalf.

Mr. Khayat wrote that Scruggs is “among the finest people I have known - a model citizen - an active participant in his church.” Mr. Davis said he had “nothing but the greatest respect for his character and integrity.” Though Scruggs as a person is not worth a book, this particular book, in spite of its detours and diversions, is important because of its central, if unintended, theme - the nature and quality of justice.

No one believes that the justice system can be either perfect or pure because judges, lawyers, jurors, witnesses and government officials are human beings. Nonetheless, justice must be, as much as possible, an impartial and unbiased application of the law to the facts, which means that those who serve the law must be the best we have. Dickie Scruggs chose to serve himself.

This book is about what respectable people in the Deep South, before money ruled the roost, once called “white trash,” and the three main subjects, asbestos, tobacco and bribery, could well be called “A New Snopes Trilogy.” In describing two of William Faulkner’s characters, first Eustace Graham and then Flem Snopes, Cleanth Brooks well described Dickie Scruggs. “He is a common enough shyster lawyer with political ambitions. Flem Snopes is utterly without honor, completely avaricious, and scarcely human in his absolute devotion to making money.”

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