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On the morning of August 21, 1997, plaintiffs lawyer Paul Minor walked into a Kmart store in Jackson, Mississippi, accompanied by two U.S. marshals. Three of Minor’s clients had recently won a $3.4 million verdict against the retail giant, but the company had not yet set aside any money for them. Minor — not one to wait passively or miss an opportunity for a dramatic gesture –arrived to collect by emptying the store’s cash registers. To make his entrance as visible as possible, Minor alerted local newspaper and TV reporters before heading to Kmart. For those on hand, Minor did not disappoint. As the cameras rolled, he blasted the company for delaying payment, calling its inaction “arrogant” and “outrageous.” His gambit worked, and Kmart Corporation posted a bond that same day. But Minor was hit with a court sanction and ordered to pay $7,685 of Kmart’s legal bills. In the view of federal district court judge Henry Wingate, Minor “was seeking to embarrass [Kmart] and call attention to himself as a tireless laborer of the bar attempting to obtain justice for his client when, in fact, there was no basis whatsoever in fact or in law for the actions taken.” Minor pushes limits, no question, and once again he is being accused of stepping over the line. This time the stakes are much higher than a judicial slap on the wrist. About two years ago, news reports surfaced that Republican Dunn Lampton, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, his office, and other government authorities were looking into financial relationships between state judges and plaintiffs lawyers. The inquiry came amid an assault on Mississippi’s judicial system. Pro-business organizations had made the state ground zero for tort reform and used words like “jackpot justice” to ridicule huge verdicts for plaintiffs. Some in the business community complained about the cozy relationship between lawyers and judges. The U.S. attorney’s office questioned several lawyers, including mass tort king Richard “Dickie” Scruggs of The Scruggs Law Firm. For months, Mississippi’s small legal circle buzzed with rumors about indictments. Some plaintiffs lawyers and members of the local press wondered about Lampton’s motivations. Finally, in the summer of 2003, Lampton brought charges of fraud and bribery against one sitting supreme court justice and his wife and two former lower court judges. Only one trial lawyer — Paul Minor — was among the accused. They all pled not guilty in August 2003. Minor is considered one of the best trial lawyers in Mississippi. He’s earned that reputation through effective communication to juries, meticulous preparation, and aggressive tactics. The 58-year-old is a fireball of passion and pride who wears his profession’s cause and his politics like a coat of arms. The son of a locally well-known liberal newspaper columnist, Minor has given generously to trial lawyer associations and the Democratic party. He’s also played an important role in the election of Mississippi’s state judges. That role has increased in importance during the last decade as Mississippi’s judicial races have become major battles between the interests of trial lawyers and those of commerce. Minor took a lead role in the trial lawyers’ resistance, contributing money and even offering campaign advice to candidates. Minor’s prosecutors say his financial support for judges was intended to gain an unfair advantage in the courtroom. If convicted at trial, which is likely to begin in early 2005 (before Judge Wingate, who sanctioned him in Kmart), Minor will face disbarment and prison time. Describing his situation, Minor, who earned a Bronze Star in the Vietnam War, once again veers toward the dramatic, characterizing himself as a soldier walking the front lines. “I’m on point,” he says. It may not exactly be a war, but the case has certainly raised questions of discretion: Did an aggressive trial lawyer cross the line between politics and bribery? Or did a prosecutor’s office go too far in charging Minor with criminal wrongdoing? Mississippi’s judicial elections weren’t always hotly contested. Nor did they involve such big money. For much of the last century, judges typically ran unopposed after being appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy. And when they did have competition, minimal amounts of money were needed to run. “About half the judges came through appointments to fill vacancies,” recalls Fred Banks, Jr., a former state supreme court judge who is now a partner at Phelps Dunbar in Jackson. “There was a consensus among the bar [about filling the vacancies]. It was basically a popularity contest.” That slowly began to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when plaintiffs started winning huge judgments. Lawyers and business leaders began taking more interest in a judge’s willingness to affirm big awards. Judicial elections became more than just popularity contests. In the 1990s, as both sides set up political action committees and poured thousands into the appellate court races, the state’s judicial system became a turf war fought between special interests. Eventually, the increasing amounts of money spent on judicial elections spurred reform. In 1999 Mississippi passed contribution limits. Individual and PAC donations were limited to $5,000 for supreme court and court of appeals candidates. Corporations were limited to $1,000. Despite the limits, a judicial race in 2000 broke all previous records. Three candidates for a seat on the state supreme court raised more than $1 million in contributions in total. The previous high for one seat was about $400,000. This increased spending tracked a larger national trend. According to the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan research group, state supreme court campaigns raised $45.6 million that year, double the amount raised in 1994. In a report, the organization called 2000 “a turning point for high-stakes campaigning in state supreme court elections.” That wasn’t an accident. In 1998 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had created the Institute for Legal Reform. One of the institute’s goals was to influence judicial elections, and it chose Mississippi as a battleground state. In the fall of 2000 the chamber of commerce, via the institute, spent an estimated $1 million in Mississippi on TV ads extolling the virtues of judicial candidates who favored its proposed legal reforms. Because the ads did not expressly endorse a specific candidate, the institute was able to skirt state campaign finance disclosure laws. It also was not bound by spending limits. Plaintiffs lawyers were outraged by the ads. They argued that the ads were illegal and that they gave the other side an unfair advantage. Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general agreed, and sued the chamber for violating state disclosure laws. But the trial lawyers couldn’t wait for the judicial process to work out the problem. They were in the middle of an election and needed to fight back. One of Minor’s friends, Oliver Diaz, Jr., was running to keep his seat on the state supreme court. Minor took a lead role in the contest, and it is in that campaign that prosecutors allege that he committed bribery. The indictment asserts that from about September through November 2000, Minor funneled approximately $45,000 of his own money to the Diaz campaign through third parties. Additionally, according to the indictment, on October 27, 2000, Minor arranged for and guaranteed a loan for $75,000 to Diaz’s wife, Jennifer Diaz. Four days later Jennifer deposited $73,000 of the loan proceeds into her husband’s campaign account. Diaz won reelection, and for the next 14 months Minor continued to solicit contributions to pay off his campaign debt. In December 2001, $60,000 in checks and $9,000 in cash obtained by Minor were deposited into a bed-and-breakfast owned by Jennifer Diaz. If Minor broke the $5,000 contribution limit, he might have committed a misdemeanor, which would have fallen under the jurisdiction of the state attorney general. But no such charge was ever issued. (Mike Moore, a Democrat who held that position until January, did not return calls for this article.) Instead, federal prosecutors accused Minor of bribery. (Lawyers working on the case from the U.S. attorney’s office in Jackson and the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section either did not return calls or declined to comment.) The charges against Minor boil down to his fund-raising for the three judges charged in the indictment. Regarding Diaz, the prosecution alleges that Minor improperly influenced only two cases. Both strain to show a quid pro quo. In one, Minor filed a notice of appeal with the supreme court in October 2000, around the time he was allegedly improperly funneling money to the Diaz campaign. But when that case was subsequently heard before the supreme court, Diaz recused himself and did not participate in the decision. The second case involves Minor’s father, Bill Minor, who was sued for defamation in 1999. In 2000 the circuit court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of Bill. When the case reached the supreme court on appeal in 2002, Diaz joined in unanimously affirming the decision. Paul paid his father’s legal bills and was listed as an interested person by the plaintiff, but he did not try the case. It will be up to the jury to decide whether Minor’s intent was to bribe Diaz, or whether he was just trying to help a friend win an expensive election with no specific payback in mind. To succeed, the prosecution will have to “establish some sort of intent that exceeds the ordinary ebb and flow of politics,” says Matthew Steffey, a criminal law professor at Mississippi College School of Law. That may be easier to do in the case involving John Whitfield, a former circuit court judge on the state’s Gulf Coast and longtime friend of Minor’s. That’s because some of the money appears to have been for the judge’s personal use. The indictment alleges that on or about October 12, 1998, Minor arranged for and personally guaranteed a $40,000 loan for Whitfield. On November 19, after Whitfield was reelected, Minor did the same for a $100,000 loan. According to two sources, the $40,000 was used for Whitfield’s reelection campaign, and the $100,000 loan was used to finance a new home for the judge, who was going through a divorce at the time. The loans were still outstanding almost two years after the campaign. In July 2000 Minor’s firm had a case before Whitfield involving a laborer who injured his back while carrying a bucket of water several times up some stairs on a vessel off the shore of Louisiana. After the bench trial, Whitfield awarded $3.75 million to the plaintiff, which the state supreme court later voted to reduce to $1.6 million. Whitfield left the bench later that year, and Minor allegedly paid off the loans in 2002. Though Minor did not try the case, no formal disclosure about the loans was made. The arrangement between Minor and Whitfield may violate the state rules of judicial conduct. The rules specifically declare that “neither judges nor members of their families residing in their households should accept a gift, bequest, favor, or loan from anyone reflecting the expectation of judicial favor.” The code also specifies that judges should disqualify themselves if “their impartiality might be questioned by a reasonable person knowing all the circumstances.” The state rules of lawyer conduct incorporate those rules in language that reads: “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to knowingly assist a judge or judicial officer in conduct that is a violation of applicable rules of judicial conduct or other law.” The allegations surrounding Judge Wes Teel, a former chancery court judge on the Gulf Coast, involve similarly problematic circumstances. After Minor arranged for the payoff of a $25,000 loan he had guaranteed for Teel, the judge oversaw a settlement that awarded Minor’s client about $1.5 million, with Minor allegedly taking almost $600,000 in attorneys’ fees. Again, Minor did not disclose the financial ties to the judge. Lawyers for Whitfield and Teel declined to comment. The charges raise questions about local custom and about Minor’s thinking. Was this simply business as usual in a small Mississippi legal community? Did Minor expect the judges to return the favor? Whatever his intention, the appearance of both the Whitfield and Teel loans suggest a nexus between the loans and the subsequent rulings in Minor’s favor. “It’s at least an ethical problem for Whitfield and Minor,” says professor Steffey. “That’s substantial circumstantial evidence. … That’s a whole lot different than the Diaz situation.” But were Minor’s actions criminal? No, say his defense lawyers, who suggest it’s the prosecutors who stepped over the line. “The government is trying to make a federal mountain out of a state ethics molehill,” said Abbe Lowell, of New York’s Chadbourne & Parke, at a June hearing. Financially, Minor didn’t have an obvious incentive to bribe judges. He is a self-made man who has distinguished himself by taking cases to court — a rarity in today’s world of out-of-court settlements — and winning large verdicts. His talents have earned him millions. He’s got the ski home in Utah, the summer pied-�-terre in Florida, and the private jet to show it. Minor’s politics and social consciousness were shaped by his father. As the Jackson bureau chief for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Bill Minor wrote aggressive stories about racist crimes, government corruption, and the civil rights movement. Now 82, he writes a syndicated column called “Eyes on Mississippi.” As liberal Catholics in a state heavily populated with conservative Southern Baptists, the Minors stood out. Bill’s stature as a veteran reporter and activist gave the family a special place in the community. His stories of racism developed Paul’s worldview. It may have also sparked an ornery independence. “He was a real handful. There’s no question about that,” says his father. Like his father, Paul met his wife in college; infused his professional life with liberal causes; and served in the military. When Paul was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, he was offered a deferment — he was heading off to law school — but turned it down. It was a difficult decision. Paul’s mother didn’t want her son to go to war. But Paul went the way of his dad. “I had ambivalent feelings about [the United States] being in Vietnam,” says Bill, who saw combat on a destroyer in the Pacific in World War II. “But I had a sense of duty and felt if you’re called to serve, you serve.” In the fall of 1970, less than a month after returning from a year in Vietnam, Paul entered law school at Tulane University. The transition from the battlefield to the classroom wasn’t easy, but being a lawyer was always his dream. His role models included a liberal lawyer neighbor and John Doar, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division in the 1960s and a friend of Minor’s family. “An elderly [family friend] told me when I was 10 years old I knew what I wanted to do,” says Minor. “She said, ‘You wanted to be a lawyer. You wanted to live on the Gulf Coast. And you wanted to stand up for the little guy.’ “ And that’s pretty much what he did. After law school, Minor clerked for a state supreme court judge and later started his own firm on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi. Helping the little guy wasn’t big business at the time. While plaintiffs lawyers in Mississippi have achieved mythical status today, thanks in part to John Grisham and Richard Scruggs, it wasn’t always that way. “Used to be, plaintiffs lawyers were the guys who couldn’t get a job at the defense firms,” says David Baria, a former president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association. “And [in court] they got their brains beat in.” As Minor recalls, his first case involved waiting in line all day and night in Biloxi municipal court for a client who only had 36 one-dollar bills. For ten years, Minor says, he worked seven days a week without a vacation. He welcomed any client he could get. To some of Minor’s colleagues in the plaintiffs bar, his indictment is tragically ironic: In Mississippi’s current political environment, where a thirst for tort reform is at its peak, the lone indicted trial lawyer is not exactly a poster boy for “jackpot justice.” According to several trial lawyers, he has stayed away from filing cases in the so-called judicial hellholes — poor districts that have handed out astronomical mass tort verdicts. “He established his reputation by earning it in the seventies and eighties by getting large verdicts in difficult cases on behalf of injured people,” says Donald Dornan, Jr., a former president of the Mississippi Bar Association and a friend of Minor’s. “I have a lot of respect for that. Paul took on cases against big companies, representing little people. This was before mass torts. He consistently got verdicts from conservative juries. … I remember a case when a defense lawyer didn’t take his claim seriously because it involved a pair of scissors that had fallen and injured his client in a retail store. He got a nice verdict.” Minor likes to make clear what he’s not: a mass tort lawyer. His view of class actions seems to be that real men don’t file them. His own self-styled motto is “one client, one case, one trial.” Minor found a variety of targets to take on in court. He sued insurance companies, doctors, construction companies, automobile manufacturers, and vessel owners. In 1992 he went to court against the owner of a bar on behalf of a man whose chest, arms, and face were burned by a flaming drink. The jury awarded Minor’s client nearly $1 million. In the Minor brand of litigation, trying cases to their end is the defining trait. In 1996 Minor became a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, the same year as Johnnie Cochran, Jr. The invitation-only group was founded in 1972 and is limited to 100 plaintiffs lawyers who have completed 50 personal injury jury trials with at least one $1 million jury verdict. Minor is the only member from Mississippi. But that motto didn’t stop him from handling — and being well compensated for — litigation in bulk. In the late 1970s Minor and F. Scott Baldwin, Jr., of Marshall, Texas, represented hundreds of shipyard workers in some of the first asbestos cases filed in Mississippi. Minor also worked on Mississippi’s suit against Big Tobacco. He reportedly earned about $70 million for his part. As Minor’s stature and wealth increased, so did his access to politicians. He gave thousands of dollars to Democrats, including Senator John Edwards (a buddy from the Inner Circle) and former Mississippi governor Ronnie Musgrove. Some of his friends and colleagues say Minor’s visible activism made him an easy political target when U.S. Attorney Lampton began looking into the financial relationships between lawyers and judges. That speculation intensified in the fall of 2003, when Musgrove was running for reelection, and news clips about Minor’s indictment and his ties to Musgrove were sent out in mailers paid for by the Mississippi Republican Party. In the end, voters elected Republican challenger Haley Barbour, who made tort reform a top priority. In a special June session called by Barbour, the Mississippi legislature passed a bill capping noneconomic damages for plaintiffs. After Barbour signed it, the chamber of commerce took out full-page ads in the The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal touting Mississippi as “open for business.” Since the criminal proceedings began last summer, Minor’s lawyers — who include Lowell of Chadbourne & Parke and James Neal of Nashville’s Neal & Harwell -� have mounted a counterattack directed personally at Lampton. In court papers, they suggest the case is about a vindictive Republican unfairly targeting a Democrat who has been a forceful advocate for trial lawyers and an opponent of tort reform. In a court filing they write that, at most, the indictment alleges that “Mr. Minor may not have reported campaign and other support correctly under Mississippi election [law] and attorney discipline rules.” Only a vindictive prosecutor, they say, could turn such an allegation into criminal wrongdoing. In a motion to dismiss, Minor’s lawyers argue that Lampton should have recused himself from the case because of a series of relationships they assert constitute “irremediable conflicts.” One involves Keith Starrett, a close personal friend of Lampton’s, who lost to Diaz in the 2000 supreme court election. Additionally, Minor has sued and received multimillion-dollar results against a company run by one of Lampton’s relatives. Minor’s lawyers point out that in 2002 Lampton recused himself from involvement in the WorldCom, Inc., criminal case because he once took campaign contributions from company employees. They say he should also step aside in Minor’s case. Minor’s lawyers also allege that he’s been unfairly targeted for doing business as usual in Mississippi. Financial and social interactions between lawyers and judges are inevitable in the state’s small communities, they argue, especially in a state that elects its judges. “Under this system,” Minor’s lawyers write, “dozens and dozens of attorneys give contributions, provide loan support, give campaign advice, and continue to socialize with judges before whom they practice.” In their court papers, Minor’s lawyers single out only one person who has given help similar to Minor: Richard Scruggs. Though they stress that Scruggs did nothing wrong, Minor’s lawyers point out the different treatment Scruggs received. About the same time Minor guaranteed a $75,000 loan for Jennifer Diaz, Scruggs guaranteed a similar loan of $80,000 for her. While Minor sought contributions from other lawyers to pay off his obligation, Scruggs simply paid his off himself. Minor was indicted, and Scruggs, who had at least one matter pending before the supreme court at the time of the loans, was not. Minor’s lawyers assert that political connections saved Scruggs, who made hundreds of millions in the states’ suit against the major tobacco companies. His brother-in-law is Trent Lott, the senior Republican senator from Mississippi who supported Lampton’s appointment to become U.S. attorney. Scruggs is also close to former attorney general Moore, whose office was once involved in the investigation with Lampton. “When the Republican U.S. attorney looks at Republican supporter Mr. Scruggs’ actions, he sees them in a way that avoids any criminal overtone,” Minor’s lawyers argue in the motion to dismiss. “I’m not a Republican,” says Scruggs. “It’s unfortunate that Paul has chosen that tack. … The fact is, I didn’t get a free pass. I didn’t do anything wrong. The U.S. attorney didn’t think I did anything wrong. … I was one of probably 30 � 40 lawyers who were questioned in a similar way about this.” On a recent afternoon in New Orleans, Minor looks strangely upbeat for a man who faces the possibility of jail time and disbarment. Close colleagues say the indictment has deeply distressed him, but he appears in good spirits. He’s chatting about wines with a manager of Bayona, one of the city’s finest restaurants, located in the French Quarter. Minor has recently been splitting time between his home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and New Orleans. The Big Easy is the perfect destination for Minor, who is as serious about drinking and eating as he is about trying cases. On this occasion, the bon vivant is starting with a white Puligny-Montrachet to go with a goat cheese crouton with mushrooms in Madeira cream. Minor hasn’t resigned himself to a life of leisure. Since the indictment, he’s still consulting on cases and attending professional meetings. But after the trial he may put his practice on hold. He hopes to spend some time in France, learning to speak French. During a walk after lunch, discussion with Minor meanders from Iraqi prison abuse to the constitutional pledge of allegiance case to his childhood memories of children singing “Dixie” in grade school. Minor tells a story of how he once refused to sing the song. For whatever reason, he felt it was wrong. The conversation keeps moving, and so does a restless Minor. The spirit of the French Quarter has inspired him. Minor pops in to the Bourbon Street Blues Company bar to hear a live band play old rock and roll covers. He’s drawn to the music, starts dancing, and takes a shot of alcohol from a cocktail waitress who delivers the drink from her mouth to his. A smart thing to do in front of a journalist? No. But whether it’s completely honest, even charming, or merely an indication of recklessness is in the eye of the beholder. Now Minor must hope that he’ll encounter sympathetic eyes at trial. This article originally appeared in Corporate Counsel’s sibling publication, The American Lawyer.

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