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The wrong that was exposed is...

The wrong that was exposed is Mississippi’s system of electing judges

By: Magnolia Tribune - August 16, 2005

The wrong that was exposed is Mississippi’s system of electing judges

I was on the forefront of the tort reform movement, but I felt uneasy about the idea of trying to send Oliver Diaz and Paul Minor to prison.

As usual, there is a classic irony here. In the heyday of lawsuits, businesses were getting sued for millions even though they followed the state laws. Compliance with the law was not enough. If you could get a jury worked up over some perceived injustice, a business could be brought to its knees even if it never broke a single state law.

Oh, the irony. Minor and Diaz perhaps were guilty of a misdemeanor violation of state campaign finance laws, punishable by a fine and maybe some professional censoring.

But instead, U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton reared the snake-headed hydra called RICO – Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Corporations Act.

RICO was designed to put bad, bad gangsters in jail. So the law was made so vague that the feds could basically use it willy-nilly against anybody.

It shall be unlawful for any person who has received any income derived, directly or indirectly, from a pattern of racketeering activity or through collection of an unlawful debt in which such person has participated as a principal within the meaning of section 2, title 18, United States Code, to use or invest, directly or indirectly, any part of such income, or the proceeds of such income, in acquisition of any interest in, or the establishment or operation of, any enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce.

That’s all fine and good, but what, exactly, is “racketeering”? As far as I can tell, it’s whatever the feds say it is. That’s OK, I guess, if you’re trying to throw gangsters in jail, but that’s just not sufficient grounds for throwing a Missis- sippi Supreme Court justice in the pen.

I will give Dunn Lampton credit. He has exposed the seamy underbelly of our state judicial/political system. That is a noble contribution to the body politic.

I, for one, knew this kind of stuff was going on, which is why I wrote more tort reform columns than I care to recall.

The public, on the other hand, was veritably shocked and appalled at the revelations of the Diaz trial. The general public had no idea the extent to which judges on our highest court were hobnobbing and taking money from the jet-setting tobacco lawyers.

Everybody I know said throw the bums in jail.

Not too long ago, Donna Ladd, editor of the Jackson Free Press, called me a “corporate apologist” because I was always defending the high and mighty such as Bernie Ebbers.

Certainly, I understand the reasons the jury sent Ebbers to jail and why Lampton prosecuted Diaz and Minor. However, as a journalist I can’t help but point out hypocrisy when I see it. This is not so much to defend the wicked as to point out that wickedness is often in the eye of the beholder.

Giving money to judges has been a Mississippi tradition for at least a hundred years. It should be stopped. We need to implement the Missouri plan in Mississippi. An independent panel recommends five candidates. The governor chooses one. And the people have the right to vote the judge out of office every four years if they are unhappy with him. Some 15 states have adopted this sensible plan.

But Mississippi has not. The people have chosen not to. In our state, judges get money from lawyers and that’s how they buy the ads they need to get elected. Do I personally like it? No. Do I respect it as the law of our state. Yes.

So why would we throw a judge in the federal pen for taking campaign money when this is the way the people of Mississippi want their judges elected? It is hypocrisy.

I’m reminded of the scene in Rick’s saloon in “Casablanca” when the Vichy French police captain says, “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

At the very worst, the Minor loan was a violation of the 1999 state statute that limits campaign contributions to judges to $5,000 – a misdemeanor. No doubt, Minor would have pleaded guilty, paid his fine and been done with it.

May I remind readers that our sitting lieutenant governor accepted a $500,000 loan from Dickie Scruggs – the same mover and shaker behind the Diaz money.

So why was she presiding over the state Senate while Oliver Diaz was on trial facing years in the federal pen? Maybe Amy Tuck read the tea leaves a bit better. In any case, this reeks of hypocrisy, selective prosecution and political hardball.

I submit to you that my credentials as a whistle blower on Mississippi’s stinking judicial cesspool are good as gold. But one wrong doesn’t make a right. If you use the same tactics for revenge, you are no better than that which you fought against.

Did Minor and Scruggs try to solicit Diaz? No doubt. Has the business community through campaign contributions tried to do the same thing to pro-defense justices? No doubt. So why was one side on trial while the other side gloated? Hypocrisy.

Am I disgusted by the revelations of the Diaz/Minor trial? Absolutely. I have been on the front line of this for eight years. But the Mississippi voters, in the past, are guilty for having allowed this situation to exist. It is a great testament to democracy that the same voters have, through the ballot box, initiated sweeping reforms of the Mississippi judiciary.

Oliver Diaz and Paul Minor are not criminals who should be in jail. In their minds, they are crusaders who are giving the common man judicial access and vindication against powerful corporate interests. Mississippians have found themselves painfully divided on this issue. Political debate is healthy. Our free society has exposed both sides.

I am glad that Dunn Lampton brought these charges. This needed to be exposed in the kind of detail only a trial can bring. Now we know. The public is served.

Oliver Diaz is not a criminal. He is a bright, hard-working young man who thought he was playing the political game as it was meant to be played. So did Minor.

I’m glad they lost the tort-reform battle. Tort reform was hugely needed. There is more still to be done. But throwing the book at Minor and Diaz was just plain selective prosecution. I cannot divorce myself from the fact that these are real people with real families and real friends. Mississippi is too small a state to treat people as pawns in a political statement.

Wyatt Emmerich
Sun Herald

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Magnolia Tribune

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