In a commentary that's longer on insinuation than on proof, New York Times editorialist Adam Cohen contends in Thursday's paper that prominent Mississippi trial lawyer Paul Minor, sentenced last month to eleven years in a long-running judicial bribery scandal, was framed by a Republican conspiracy. Cohen's argument runs more or less as follows: Minor may have arranged loans and financial favors for local judges, but "everyone" in the justice system down there does similarly "questionable" things, so "a prosecutor can haul any lawyer and judge he doesn�t like before a grand jury and charge corruption". Really? Any lawyer, and any judge? There are no lawyers in Mississippi who refrain from funneling money under the table to judges as Minor did, and no judges who refrain from accepting money of this sort? Names and particulars would be most welcome here, but are quite absent from Cohen's account.
Minor, of course, was not just hauled before a grand jury but convicted by an actual trial jury of the charges Cohen dismisses as "unconvincing". But let that pass. The point is that since anyone could be prosecuted but only Democratic donor Minor was, the explanation must lie in political favoritism; on this point Cohen cites Minor's own lawyers, no doubt a very objective source, who "say prosecutors were not interested in going after similar activity by trial lawyers who contributed to Republicans". Which trial lawyers are those? Again, Cohen mentions none.
Much heavy breathing ensues about how the whole thing was a plot to knock off the trial lawyers as a political base for Mississippi Democrats. Indeed, "the case intimidated trial lawyers into stopping their political activity." That must be why the Times reported on Wednesday that the Mississippi Democratic Party is running a successful plaintiff's lawyer for governor, why another successful plaintiff's lawyer has captured the Republican (!) nomination for attorney general against an incumbent who is himself joined at the political hip with trial lawyers, why trial lawyer donations just knocked off an incumbent insurance commissioner who was not sufficiently cooperative with the wishes of Katrina litigators, and so forth. If Minor's downfall occasioned a collapse of the political clout of trial lawyers in Mississippi, someone must have forgotten to tell the trial lawyers about it.
If you think Cohen might be going a bit out on a limb in asserting a scandal based on this evidence, wait till you see the version of the same argument on offer at Harper's, where Columbia law lecturer and Balkinization contributor Scott Horton wholeheartedly endorses a master-key set of conspiracy theories in which villains that include Antonin Scalia and his duck-hunting partners, in concert with many other sinister interests, gleefully manipulate Magnolia State politics from afar. Horton relies heavily on unnamed secret informants, such as "two sources, one of them inside of the Justice Department" who assure him that the conspiracy is even worse than he could imagine, and that trial lawyers nationwide are being maliciously brought up on technicalities in a manner reminiscent of an Eastern European dictatorship.
Any account of prosecutorial favoritism in the Minor affair, of course, must begin (and perhaps end) with the success of Richard ("Dickie") Scruggs at dodging charges, despite having taken part in some questionable transactions. Scruggs's defenders would maintain that his role in the transactions was simply less egregious than Minor's. Horton prefers the alternative explanation that Scruggs, who is the brother-in-law of Trent Lott, wields more political clout than Minor. To make the favoritism story fit, Horton presents Scruggs as a figure who "tends to support the Republicans, not the Democrats", which at the least oversimplifies the complicated bipartisan political persona of the self-identified Democrat, "almost exclusively a supporter of Mississippi Democrats" and a key backer of national Democrats as well. And it also seems to miss the point that if national Chamber of Commerce types had been secretly pulling the prosecutorial strings, as Horton repeatedly hints, you'd think they would infinitely have preferred to nail the big-league national player (Scruggs) and let the locally famous one (Minor) get off than the reverse. But why let such complications get in the way of a good story?