TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Aug 13, 2008

Journal Issue Date: Aug 2008

Journal Name: August 2008 - Vol. 44, No. 8

On June 26, Mississippi lawyer Dickie Scruggs was sentenced to five years in prison for conspiring to bribe a judge. On the next day, Scruggs's picture was on the front page of every newspaper in the country. We lawyers are like preachers. When televangelist Jimmy Swaggart gets caught with his pants down (literally), the national press tries to make it look like Billy Graham and Mother Teresa are right there with him, sinning big time. And when some hot-shot lawyer in Mississippi is caught trying to bribe a judge, the media wants to make it look like you and I and Perry Mason and our cousin Vinnie were all caught too.

One of the things that really irritated me about the national media coverage of Dickie Scruggs' sentencing was that many newspapers referred to Scruggs as "the King of Torts." But the truth of the matter is that in his entire 30-year-long legal career, Dickie Scruggs has tried only a handful of cases. (Less than ten trials, according to one report.) If he's the King of Torts, I'm the Prince of Wales.

No, Dickie Scruggs may have been the Czar of Class Actions or the Master of Mass Money Transfers, and he may have even been the Baron of Bribery. But he was not, repeat not, the King of Torts.

And in the aftermath of the decline and fall of Dickie Scruggs, I say it's time for us to praise real lawyers.

I am proud to be a Baptist PK (preacher's kid). And what makes me really proud is that my father was a real preacher. In his 45-year career in the ministry, Daddy never appeared on the PTL Club. He did not have his own cable TV show, and he never endorsed a candidate for president. Unlike Oral Roberts, he never went on TV and told people that unless they sent him several million dollars by a certain date, God would immediately call him to heaven. He never opened a religious theme park with a hokey title such as Six Flags Under Heaven. And he never left my momma for a trophy wife named Tammy Faye.

No, brothers and sisters, Daddy was a real preacher, and like most real preachers, this is what he did He visited men in prison, helped feed and clothe the homeless, and sat in hospital rooms at the bedsides of people who were fighting for their lives. He married people, buried people, preached three non-televised sermons a week, taught Bible study classes, counseled couples in an effort to save their marriages, led youth retreats and Vacation Bible Schools. He was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help his brothers and sisters, and he didn't even get Sundays off. (He should have gotten a job at Chik-fil-A.) And the column you are now reading is the only media coverage he has ever received.

He was a real preacher, and when I see one of these ordained chipmunks preening around on my television screen claiming to be a preacher, it does not exactly fill my heart with Christian love. No, I confess that I get mad. I get mad because the media focuses all the attention on the ordained chipmunk that is caught with his paws in the offering plate, while you and I never read a word about real preachers like my daddy.

Which brings us back to the not-so-reverend Dickie Scruggs. Now make no mistake about it, Dickie Scruggs is obviously a very creative guy. He was sort of a Robin Hood of cigarettes. He figured out a way to take from the rich tobacco companies and give to, well not exactly the poor, but to the states who have to pay for all the poor sick people who are addicted to cigarettes. He also gave to himself by pocketing a billion dollars in fees. But for my money (and keep in mind that I am hardly a thousandnaire, much less a billionaire), Dickie Scruggs was not a real lawyer. He was no more a real lawyer than Jimmy Swaggart is a real preacher. Oh sure, Dickie Scruggs had a law license and a nice office on the court square in Oxford that was no doubt beautifully decorated with lots of law books lining the hallways. And he apparently made a number of court appearances over the years, although regrettably, at least one of them involved an ex parte conference with the judge he was trying to bribe. But as I understand the word, he wasn't really a lawyer.

Real lawyers are like real preachers. You don't see them being interviewed by Nancy Grace or holding press conferences or flying around on their personal Learjets. If you want to see a real lawyer, just head to the courthouse square at any county seat in the Volunteer State. There you will find real lawyers in the courthouse or across the street in a store-front office. You can also find real lawyers in downtown skyscrapers, in Legal Services offices or in the legal clinics of our state's four law schools. And when you see these real lawyers at the courthouse or in their offices or in the clinics, you'll see them doing real legal work. You'll see them standing in front of judges and juries as advocates for folks who are in trouble. You'll see them counseling common folks who have lost their jobs or have been hurt in a car wreck or are fighting over their kids.

You will also see these real lawyers doing other things that, at first glance, do not even appear to be legal work. You'll see them serving as leaders in their churches, community groups, and in their kids' schools. See, that's the thing about real lawyers. They are natural born leaders. And they are willing to lead and serve without ever charging folks a penny.

Real preachers and real lawyers. They don't get much attention. But as far as I'm concerned, they're heroes.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association