People blame them for insurance costs, slow rates of business growth and sometimes just blame them because they are rich. But when a doctor makes a mistake with a family member, or a friend dies because of a faulty product, or a pill turns out to cause cancer, most of us will spare no expense in finding the best trial lawyer to seek redress.
“The Fall of the House of Zeus” is a story about one of the most powerful trial lawyers of our time. Dickie Scruggs of Mississippi took on the tobacco companies, the drug companies and the insurance companies. He fought for the little guy and in doing so became the big man on campus. Along the way he dabbled in politics, international affairs, and academia. Curtis Wilkie’s book is an exploration of the rise and inevitable fall of Scruggs. Wealth, addiction and greed corrupted him and though he was busted in what I thought was a chickenshit case, he wasn’t truly an innocent either.
“Zeus” is Grisham-esque non-fiction. (In fact, John Grisham makes a few cameos as a friend of Scruggs.) The story fits neatly in about 300 pages and reads like a page-turner. The moral: Scruggs was done in by being careless with his friends and money. He was probably too trusting of others and too anxious to get ahead. Ultimately, that catches up with people, and he developed powerful enemies that eventually brought him down.
But something stuck in my craw (the southernisms keep bubbling up) when I read about how the FBI case against Scruggs came together. Before they actually caught Scruggs doing anything, they decided he was the final target of their investigation. Once Judge Lackey (aptly named) notified the FBI of a crime, the FBI decided to hold off until they got the big fish—Scruggs. They didn’t pounce, make arrests, or do anything until they had ensnared Scruggs. And something about that just seems like entrapment to me.
Let me be clear. Scruggs was far from a saint. I don’t think he was born a crook, and probably didn’t plan to be a crook, but he was weak and is responsible for the sins that resulted from his inability to control his operation. He operated on the far edges and in the gray areas of ethics. We need fewer lawyers like that.
I enjoy fishing. And sometimes I go fishing and I don’t catch anything. Only the worst kind of fisherman insists on dynamiting the waters to kill and then scoop up the fish that were smart enough to avoid the hook. It’s cheating. Something about the Scruggs case made me think of this. And as they say, I’m not sayin, I’m just sayin.
The other reason I liked this book was for the window it provided into Southern politics. At the end of 2004, I was looking for what to do and where to go next. Looking for a break from Ohio weather, I asked my southern friend and co-worker about Carolina politics and if they were tough to break in to. She laughed and dismissed it out of hand. Now I know why. If Mississippi is anything like the Carolinas (and by all accounts it is far, far worse) there’s no room for us Yankees. In Mississippi, the deep relationships cultivated during the Eastland era and the Ole Miss college years are impossible to crack. The state seems to be run by a very intense, political and clubby network. Nothing wrong with that, and damn, it was interesting to read about.
Let me sum up. At the end of the day, Scruggs got too big for his britches, and was livin life in the high cotton. He was as happy as a dead pig in sunshine while his boys were fixin to get rich or die tryin. Many people thought he was so crooked he could hide behind a corkscrew and before long, he was up shit creek without a paddle. He learned that if you lie down with dogs, you’re gonna get some fleas. And today, he’s in prison, madder than an old wet hen.
Not sure where all that came from. If you like politics, lawyers, or the South (I realize that might be none of you) then pick up this book. I think you’ll agree that though Dickie Scruggs was a flawed person, he got the short end of the stick. (Dammit!)