UPDATE – Miss. judge wants corruption charges dropped

Published 12:39 am Friday, April 17, 2009

A circuit judge fighting corruption charges only received a “meaningless courtesy call” rather than anything of value and the bulk of the case against him should be dropped, his lawyers have argued.

Attorneys for Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter said in court papers filed Tuesday that the case boils down to a courtesy call from a U.S. Senator and does not constitute a crime.

DeLaughter, noted for a high-profile prosecution of a white supremacist assassin in the 1990s, is accused of exchanging favorable rulings for consideration for a seat on the federal bench. He pleaded not guilty and denies doing anything wrong. Trial is set for August.

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Prosecutors say imprisoned former lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs influenced DeLaughter by promising to help him get the federal appointment with his high-powered connections, specifically then-U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, Scruggs’ brother-in-law.

Scruggs is serving a total of seven years for his role in two alleged bribery conspiracies, one involving a different judge, and is cooperating with authorities.

DeLaughter is charged with conspiracy, three counts of mail fraud and obstruction. The motion, which did not address the obstruction charge, argues the conspiracy and mail fraud counts should be thrown out. It says bribery is “the exchange of (or an agreement to exchange) official action for something of value.”

“If this case boils down to a judge who received ex parte contacts on one hand and a litigant who arranged a meaningless courtesy call on the other, there is no crime at all, much less a federal felony offense,” DeLaughter’s attorneys argued.

Prosecutors have argued that consideration for a seat on the federal bench is, in itself, a thing of value and DeLaughter let Scruggs take advantage of his ambitions to be a federal judge.

DeLaughter was presiding over a dispute over millions of dollars in fees from asbestos lawsuits when prosecutors say he was improperly influenced.

Scruggs, a chief architect of the multibillion-dollar tobacco settlements of the 1990s, pleaded guilty to mail fraud in the case.

Lott has not been charged with wrongdoing. He acknowledged calling DeLaughter about the open seat on the federal bench but recommended someone else for the job.

“Lott telephoned DeLaughter asking if he would be interested in a federal judgeship, and explaining that his brother-in-law (Dickie Scruggs) had told him what a ’fine judge’ DeLaughter was,” prosecutors said. One of Lott’s duties as a senator was to recommend nominees for federal judgeships.

DeLaughter’s attorneys say the call doesn’t constitute a crime because DeLaughter had already sent an application to Lott’s office to be considered for the job, just like any other attorney in Mississippi could have done.

“The difference between a judgeship and consideration for a judgeship is more than semantic,” the attorneys wrote in a 13-page motion.

And, DeLaughter’s attorneys said, the judge did not know that Scruggs and others paid former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters $1 million to work behind the scenes in trying to influence him.

DeLaughter was once an assistant district attorney under Peters. They made headlines in 1994 by successfully prosecuting Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The case was portrayed in the 1996 movie “Ghosts of Mississippi” and DeLaughter wrote a book about the trial.

Peters is not charged in the case, but has given up his law license and investigators seized $425,000 from him, which is all they say is left of the $1 million from Scruggs after taxes and stock market losses.

Others allegedly involved in the scheme, and already serving prison sentences in one of the two judicial bribery conspiracies involving Scruggs, are former Mississippi Auditor Steve Patterson and two disbarred attorneys, Joey Langston and Timothy Balducci.

Langston also pleaded guilty to trying to influence DeLaughter on Scruggs’ behalf. Balducci and Patterson pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a different judge.