• The Wall Street Journal

Mississippi Justice on Email

How the plaintiffs bar-attorney general nexus works in the raw.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood trekked to Washington in May to ask Congress to rewrite federal law so he can sue Gulf oil spill companies in state court. Like so many state AGs these days, Mr. Hood is looking to cash in with his Magnolia State legal home boys one more time.

For a backstage look at what's doing in Jackson, we recommend a tour through the emails made public this month as part of litigation related to Mr. Hood's last big legal shakedown, against insurers after Hurricane Katrina. As we wrote at the time, Mr. Hood used his powers of criminal investigation to soak property and casualty insurers, and to ensure that his trial bar retinue got part of the cut. A particularly large share went to tort kingpin Dickie Scruggs, who is now in jail for an unrelated attempt to bribe a judge.

In a March 15, 2007 "Mississippi Justice" editorial, we laid out how this AG-Scruggs back-scratching worked. Scruggs had coached two sisters who worked as adjustors to take some 15,000 pages of documents from a State Farm contractor. When a federal judge ordered Scruggs to return what he called the "purloined" documents, Mr. Hood interceded, advising Scruggs to send the documents to him—out of the reach of the federal court and State Farm, which wouldn't know what had been taken and would be less able to defend itself.

Mr. Hood then used the threat of the documents to pressure State Farm to settle simultaneously with him and Scruggs for $130 million. This tag-team mugging was so blatant that the federal judge asked that Scruggs be prosecuted for criminal contempt and stated that Mr. Hood and Scruggs had "teamed up to bully State Farm into civil and criminal settlements." Even the federal judge who ultimately dismissed the contempt charges against Scruggs on technical grounds agreed there was a "cloud of suspicion surrounding the agreement between Scruggs and Hood."


Our editorial nonetheless infuriated Mr. Hood, who wrote us to deny he was ever in "collusion" with Scruggs. So imagine our surprise when State Farm, as part of continuing Katrina litigation, recently released more than 400 pages of emails it had obtained from the public-relations outfit that once served the Scruggs Law Firm. It turns out that Mr. Hood was so tight with the Mississippi tort mob that he turned to them for help to refute our arguments that he was . . . in bed with the Mississippi tort mob.

By 5:48 a.m. on the morning our editorial ran, Mr. Hood had whipped off an email entitled "Draft Response to Another Wall Street Journal Attack." It was addressed to 18 individuals, many of them Mississippi trial lawyers. It read: "Friends, Please email me your thoughts on this draft response to the attached article in today's Wall Street Journal. Don't worry, this is just my initial venting draft."

Mr. Hood rails that our claim that he helped Scruggs with his settlement is "actionable and compensable for libel." He "demands" that we "retract this allegation and reveal who told" us this "lie." And he insists that we reveal our "bias" to readers by "releasing how much insurance and related companies pay your journal annually." Had he asked, we would have told him that we operate independently of our advertising department.

The email was sent to Dickie Scruggs, who forwarded it to the Rendon Group, the firm's PR outfit. Mr. Hood's other email "friends" included Scrugg's lawyer son Zach (who also served time in the bribery case), Joey Langston (convicted in a separate bribery case), Don Barrett (who helped Scruggs sue State Farm), former state AG Mike Moore (who worked with Scruggs on his Katrina lawsuits and with Mr. Hood on his insurance litigation), and trial lawyers Danny Cupit and William Liston (retained by Mr. Hood's office to help prosecute, and profit from, his insurance litigation). Most of these lawyers are also top Hood campaign donors, thus completing the circle of mutual reward.

It isn't clear what feedback Mr. Hood received on his draft, though a separate email has a senior Rendon PR executive directing a colleague to "please clean up" the AG's prose. We ran a toned-down letter to the editor from Mr. Hood on March 23, 2007.

As for the rest of the Rendon emails, they offer an amusing insight into a Mississippi trial cabal that plots together and is acutely aware that its ability to reap huge paydays from suing private business depends on a friendly media willing to portray it as defenders of the little guy. One email reports that the Rendon PR firm called (former Senator) Trent Lott's office for help burnishing its clients' image. Mr. Lott is Dickie Scruggs's brother-in-law.

Another target was David Rossmiller, an Oregon attorney who did the nation a service by blogging the details of the Hood-trial bar insurance litigation. In response to one Rossmiller post, Zach Scruggs orders the Rendon team to dig into Mr. Rossmiller's life and "EXPOSE HIM!"


No wonder Mr. Hood now wants Congress to rewrite the laws that currently direct litigation against BP and other oil firms to federal court. Mississippi is famed for its jackpot justice, and as the emails reveal, Mr. Hood and his cabal work together to squeeze settlements from their targets. As with the Katrina litigation, the Pascagoula lawsuit society is hoping for the mother of all jackpots against Big Oil. If the AG can keep this litigation at home, he can use the powers of his office to work with this crew to hit another gusher.

BP and the other companies involved in the spill will be writing big checks no matter where the cases are adjudicated, and rightly so. But Mr. Hood offered no compelling reason in his Congressional testimony that the lawsuits against the oil giant belong outside of federal court. The only reason would be to allow Mr. Hood and his "friends" greater ability to stack the deck against industry and the rule of law.