Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Battle of Mississippi

A superb piece today from Scott Horton, of Harper's, about the forces that led to the prosecution of attorney Paul Minor and three judges in Mississippi.

Horton lays out the role pro-business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the tobacco industry, played in a struggle to reshape Mississippi courts. He compares this to Karl Rove's highly successful 1990s campaign to put pro-business Republicans in charge of Alabama courts.

The plan, Horton writes, was to replicate that strategy next door in Mississippi. "But after the effort failed, to the great surprise of its proponents, a desire for revenge seems to have taken hold," Horton writes. "It was not revenge for revenge's sake. Rather its objective was unmistakable: punish the Mississippi trial lawyers who took the Chamber on and won. Humiliate them. And dry up the campaign funding resources that were fueling the opposition to the Chamber. And suddenly the Mississippi trial lawyers and their judicial allies found themselves facing an even hungrier and more powerful foe: the Bush White House's Department of Justice."

The No. 1 target of the Bush DOJ? Paul Minor, who had become a wealthy Democratic benefactor through successful litigation against the tobacco and asbestos industries, plus personal-injury and wrongful-death cases. The method? Charge that Minor and plaintiff-friendly judges were corrupt.

Judicial targets were Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, Circuit Judge John Whitfield, and Chancery Judge Wes Teel. After a first trial resulted in no guilty verdicts (and a clean acquittal for Diaz), the Bush DOJ pursued a retrial that ended with convictions of Minor, Whitfield, and Teel.

Horton says 2000 was a key date in the effort to attack trial lawyers and "pro-plaintiff" judges in Mississippi. That's when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign to roll back class-action lawsuits in a number of key states, including Mississippi, Washington, Illinois, and West Virginia.

The Chamber funneled about $1 million into Mississippi judicial races in 2002, using front organizations to hide the source of the funds. (Irony note: The key reason evidently for the conviction of Minor, Whitfield, and Teel was the alleged concealment of their financial dealings.)

State courts ruled that the Chamber's effort violated Mississippi election laws. The Chamber turned to U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, the justice responsible for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, and he overturned the injunction and allowed the Chamber's campaign to proceed.

Trial lawyers were forced to develop a counter campaign, even though their financial resources could not match those of the pro-business interests. But when the trial lawyers held off the Chamber, Horton writes, bitterness set in among business groups. They turned to a friendly DOJ in the Bush administration, and as a result, Minor, Whitfield, and Teel now are in federal prison on convictions for bribery, honest-services mail fraud, and related charges.

We have spent the past couple of weeks here at Legal Schnauzer showing that the Minor prosecution was unjustified under the law and the case itself was unlawfully decided. The person at the center of this was U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, a Republican appointee who oversaw the trial.

Soon, we turn our attention to Judge Wingate and his curious handling of the retrial in the Paul Minor case.

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