ScruggsBlawgletter admires good writing, no matter whence it comes. But we like it better when a judge produces it.

Last week, Fifth Circuit Judge Jacques Wiener did a fine piece of work. It kind of sings. And it tells the on-going tale of Dickie Scruggs, the rich lawyer who flew too close to the sun. We think you'll enjoy his narrative of the facts:

    Scruggs made both a name and a fortune as a plaintiffs’ attorney in asbestos and tobacco litigation. Along the way, he became entangled in many fee-sharing disputes with co-counsel, one of which resulted in a lawsuit filed by Robert Wilson in the Circuit Court of Hinds County, Mississippi (“the Wilson Case”). Robert “Bobby” DeLaughter, best known first for successfully prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for murdering civil rights leader Medgar Evers, sat on the Circuit Court of Hinds County, where he was assigned the Wilson Case and his path crossed with Scruggs.

Scruggs wanted a sure thing in the Wilson Case, having recently lost a similar fee fight. As the presiding judge, DeLaughter could put his finger on the scales. DeLaughter coveted a federal Article III judgeship more than anything else; as the brother-in-law of then-United State Senator Trent Lott, Scruggs could influence the person who sent candidates to the President. In early 2006, Scruggs retained Ed Peters, a close friend and mentor of DeLaughter’s, as a secret go-between who conveyed an offer: If DeLaughter would help Scruggs win the Wilson Case, Scruggs would recommend DeLaughter to Lott for a district court judgeship.

    DeLaughter kept his end of the bargain: When Scruggs badly needed a trial continuance, DeLaughter entered, verbatim, a scheduling order prepared by one of Scruggs’s attorneys, despite having disclaimed input from either party. DeLaughter also reviewed yet-to-be-filed motions for Scruggs, advising how he would rule and which arguments needed work. During 2006, three judicial vacancies opened on Mississippi federal district courts. In March 2006, after being passed over for nomination to one of those seats, DeLaughter relayed his dissatisfaction and concern that “he was doing his part of the bargain and that . . . Scruggs was not going to fulfill his part of the deal.” Immediately thereafter, Scruggs had Senator Lott call DeLaughter. Although the record suggests that Lott did not say that DeLaughter was being considered, DeLaughter nonetheless came away with the impression that he was in the running for the seat.

    Mollified that Scruggs was keeping his end of the bargain, DeLaughter continued secretly to tilt the scales in the Wilson Case. When Wilson filed a potentially dispositive motion asking DeLaughter to quantify the amount of fees Scruggs still owed, Scruggs’s attorneys did not know whether to oppose the motion and pursue a full trial or to agree to submit the quantification issue to the judge. DeLaughter assured them that Scruggs would win the quantification motion, and he did. After faxing a preview of his order to Scruggs’s counsel, DeLaughter held that Scruggs owed no more than he had already paid and denied Wilson’s motion for reconsideration without comment. But the quantification order was so
favorable that even Scruggs’s attorneys worried that it could not be affirmed on appeal, so Scruggs settled the Wilson Case before appeal with the help of DeLaughter, who revealed Wilson’s confidential settlement position.

    These machinations came to light when members of Scruggs’s legal team began cooperating with the government’s investigation of an unrelated judicial bribery scheme. A grand jury returned an indictment charging Scruggs and DeLaughter with one count of conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666, and three counts of aiding and abetting honest-services mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341 and 1346. The honest-services counts in the indictment alleged “a scheme and artifice to secretly and corruptly influence” DeLaughter, thus “depriving [Wilson] and the citizens of the State of Mississippi of their intangible right to [his] honest services.” In particular, the indictment alleged that Scruggs prevailed on Lott to consider DeLaughter, and “in return” DeLaughter provided secret access and favorable treatment.

    Scruggs pleaded guilty to a superseding information charging him with a single count of aiding and abetting honest-services mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341 and 1346. Like the original indictment, the information alleged a scheme corruptly to influence DeLaughter and deprive the citizens of Mississippi of their right to his honest services, describing Scruggs’s call to Lott on DeLaughter’s behalf. But the Information omitted that which DeLaughter did for Scruggs “in return.”

    Pursuant to a plea agreement, the charges in the indictment were dismissed. Scruggs was sentenced to imprisonment for seven years, concurrent with a prior five-year term for conspiring to bribe another judge who was presiding over a different fee dispute.

    On June 24, 2010, the Supreme Court issued Skilling v. United States in which it addressed the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. § 1346, the honest-services statute. Section 1346 states that “the term ‘scheme or artifice to defraud’ includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” To avoid problems of constitutional vagueness with this definition, the Court in Skilling limited the application of the statute to paradigmatic bribery and kickback schemes only.3 In June 2011, Scruggs filed a motion to vacate his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, contending in light of Skilling that, as he did not admit to bribing Judge DeLaughter, he is not guilty of a crime.

    The district court concluded that, by pleading guilty, Scruggs had procedurally defaulted on that claim. After a two-day evidentiary hearing, thedistrict court issued a thorough 48-page opinion denying the § 2255 motion because Scruggs had not shown either his actual innocence or cause and prejudice. The district court issued a certificate of appealability on the issue of “actual innocence” and “other issues in the opinion,” and Scruggs timely filed a notice of appeal.

United States v. Scruggs, No. 12-60423, slip op. at 1-4 (5th Cir. Apr. 12, 2013).

Scruggs lost the appeal, by the way. We can imagine your surprise.

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Photo of Barry Barnett Barry Barnett

Clients and colleagues call Barry Barnett an “incredibly gifted lawyer” (Chambers and Partners) who is “magic in the courtroom” (Who’s Who Legal), “the top antitrust lawyer in Texas” (Chambers and Partners), and “a person of unquestioned integrity” (David J. Beck, founder of Beck…

Clients and colleagues call Barry Barnett an “incredibly gifted lawyer” (Chambers and Partners) who is “magic in the courtroom” (Who’s Who Legal), “the top antitrust lawyer in Texas” (Chambers and Partners), and “a person of unquestioned integrity” (David J. Beck, founder of Beck Redden).

Barnett is a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, and Lawdragon has named him one of the top 500 lawyers in the United States three years in a row. Best Lawyers in America has honored him as “Lawyer of the Year” for Bet-the-Company Litigation (2019 and 2017) and Patent Litigation (2020) in Houston. Based in Texas and New York, Barnett has tried complex business disputes across the United States.

TRIAL COUNSEL
Barnett’s background, training, and experience make him indispensable to his clients. The small-town son of a Texas roughneck and grandson of a Texas sharecropper, Barnett “developed an unusual common sense about people, their motivations, and their dilemmas,” according to former client Michael Lewis.

Barnett has been historically recognized for his effectiveness and judgment. His peers chose him, for example, to the American College of Trial Lawyers and American Law Institute. His decades of trial and appellate work representing both plaintiffs and defendants have made him a master strategist and nimble tactician in complex disputes.

Barnett focuses on enforcement of antitrust laws, the “Magna Carta of free enterprise,” in Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s memorable phrase. “Barry is one of the nation’s outstanding antitrust lawyers,” according to Joseph Goldberg, a member of the Private Antitrust Enforcement Hall of Fame. Named among Texas’s top ten antitrust lawyers of 2023, Business Today calls Barnett a “trailblazer” among the “distinguished legal minds” who “dedicate their skill and expertise to the maintenance of healthy competition in various sectors” of the Lone Star State’s booming economy. Barnett is also adept in energy and intellectual property matters and has battled for clients against a Who’s Who list of corporate behemoths, including Abbott Labs, Alcoa, Apple, AT&T, BlackBerry, Broadcom, Comcast, Dow, JPMorgan Chase, Samsung, and Visa.

Barnett commands a courtroom with calm and credibility and “is the perfect lawyer for bet the company litigation,” said Scott Regan, General Counsel of former client Whiting Petroleum. His performance before the Supreme Court in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend prompted the Court to withdraw the question on which it had granted review. The judge in a trial involving mobile phone technology called Barnett “one of the best” and that his opening statement the finest he had ever seen. Another trial judge told Barnett minutes after a jury returned a favorable verdict against the county’s biggest employer that he was one of the two best trial lawyers he’d ever come across—adding that the other one was dead.

COMPLETE PACKAGE
A versatile trial lawyer, Barnett knows how to handle a case all the way from strategic pre-suit planning to affirmance on appeal. He’s tried cases to verdict and then briefed and argued them when they went before appellate courts, including the Second, Third, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits, the Supreme Court of Louisiana, and (in the case of Comcast Corp. v. Behrend) the Supreme Court of the United States.

Barnett is a sought-after public speaker, often serving on panels and talking about topics like the trials of antitrust class actions and techniques for streamlining complex litigation. He also comments on trends in commercial litigation and the implications of major rulings for outlets such as NPR, Reuters, Law360, Corporate Counsel, and The Dallas Morning News. He’s even appeared in a Frontline program about underfunding of state pensions, authored chapters on “Fee Arrangements” and “Techniques for Expediting and Streamlining Litigation” (the latter with Steve Susman) in the ABA’s definitive treatise on Business and Commercial Litigation in Federal Courts, 5th, and commented on How Antitrust Enforcers Might Think Like Plaintiffs’ Lawyers.

HARD GRADERS
Clients and other hard graders have praised Barnett for his courtroom skills and legal acumen.

A client in a $100 million oil and gas case, which Barnett’s team won at trial and held on appeal, said Barnett and his team “presented a rare combination of strong legal intellect, common sense about right and wrong, and credibility in the courtroom.” David McCombs at Haynes and Boone said Barnett “has a natural presence that goes over well with juries and judges.”

Even former adversaries give Barnett high marks. Lead opposing counsel in a decade-long antitrust slugfest said “Barry is a highly skilled advocate. He understands what really matters in telling a narrative and does so in a very compelling manner.”

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Barnett relishes opportunities to collaborate with all kinds of people. At the Center for American and International Law (CAIL), founded by a former prosecutor at Nuremberg in 1947 and headquartered in the Dallas area, he has served on the Executive Committee, co-chaired the committee that produced CAIL’s first-ever strategic plan, supported CAIL’s Institute for Law Enforcement Administration and other development efforts, and proposed formation of a new Institute for Social Justice Law. CAIL’s former President David Beck said “Barry is extremely bright” and is “very well prepared in every lawsuit or professional task he undertakes.”

Barnett is also a Trustee of the New-York Historical Society, a Sterling Fellow at Yale, a member of the Yale University Art Gallery’s Governing Board, a winner of the Class Award for his work on behalf of his college class, and a proud contributor to the Yellow Ribbon Program at Harvard Law. Barnett’s pro bono work includes leading the trial team representing people who are at greatest risk of severe illness and death as a result of being exposed to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 while being detained in the Dallas County jail—work for which he received the NGAN Legal Advocacy Fund RBG Award.

At Susman Godfrey, Barnett has served on the firm’s Executive Committee, Employment Committee, and ad hoc committees on partner compensation, succession of leadership, and revision of the firm’s partnership agreement. He also twice chaired the Practice Development Committee.

KEEPING PERSPECTIVE
Barnett understands that clients face many pressures. Managing the stress is important, especially in matters that take years to resolve. He encourages clients to call him whenever they have a question or concern and to keep the inevitable ups and downs in perspective. He wants them to know that he will do his level best to help them achieve their goals. He also strives to foster trust and to make working with him a pleasure.

Cyrus “Skip” Marter, the General Counsel of Bonanza Creek in Denver and a former Susman Godfrey partner and client, said Barnett is “excellent about communicating with clients in a full and honest manner” and can “negotiate for his clients from a position of strength, because he is not afraid to take a case through a full trial on the merits.” Stacey Doré, the President of Hunt Utility Services and a former client, said that Barnett is “an excellent trial lawyer and the person you want to hire for your bet-the-company cases. He is client focused, responsive, and uniquely savvy about trial and settlement strategy.” A New York colleague said, “Barry is a joy to work with as co-counsel. He tackles complex procedural and factual hurdles capably, efficiently, and without drama.”

PERSONAL
Barnett’s wide-ranging experience and calm, down-to-earth approach enable him to connect with clients, judges, jurors, witnesses, and even opposing counsel. He grew up in Nacogdoches, Texas. He co-captained his high school varsity football team as an All-East Texas middle linebacker while also serving as the Editor of Key Club’s Texas-Oklahoma District, won the Best Typist award, took the History Team to glory, and sang in the East Texas All Region Choir. As Dan Kelly of client Vistra Corp. put it, Barnett is “a great person to be around.”

Barnett is steady and loyal. He has practiced at Susman Godfrey his entire career. He and his wife Nancy live in Dallas and enjoy spending time in Houston and New York. Their daughter works for H-E-B in Houston, and their son is a Haynes and Boone transactions lawyer in Dallas.

As a member of Ivy League championship football teams in his junior and senior years at Yale and a parent of two Yalies, Barnett has no trouble choosing sides for “The Game” in November. And he knows how important fighting all the way to the end is. On his last play from scrimmage, in the waning minutes of The Game on Nov. 22, 1980, he recovered a Crimson fumble.

Yale won, 14-0.