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Speaking Out: Supreme Court Justice Smeared by the U.S. Chamber

Story Inspires John Grisham’s Bestseller

Dec. 11, 2013
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Oliver Diaz
Few jurists have inspired a best-selling book by John Grisham, appeared in an acclaimed documentary, been the subject of congressional hearings and will see their life story play out in a feature film.

But Oliver Diaz has done all that—even if you don’t know his name.

And his experiences as a candidate, Mississippi Supreme Court justice and criminal defendant have turned him into an advocate for reforming the way we select judges and fund campaigns.


Criminal Charges to Undo an Election

Diaz was appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2000 and despite strong opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, won election to a full term later that year.

That’s when his troubles began.

Three years later, Diaz was slapped with federal charges for bribery and mail fraud and took a three-year absence from the bench. After a three-month trial in 2005, a jury acquitted Diaz in less than a half hour. After the verdict, the federal prosecutor, Dunnican Lampton, said he wasn’t surprised by the swift acquittal, since he didn’t have a lot of evidence to back up his charges.

Diaz didn’t have a lot of time to celebrate his legal victory, though. A few days later, he—and his wife—faced new federal tax evasion charges.

Yet again, Diaz went to trial. And, once again, the jury swiftly acquitted him. He returned to the Mississippi Supreme Court after almost three years and ran for re-election in 2008, but lost. The long-running scandal had made him politically toxic.

“What they weren’t able to do through an election, they were able to do with a federal prosecution, a federal investigation, to keep me off the bench, to ruin my reputation, to make it that I probably wouldn’t be able to be elected again to the Mississippi Supreme Court,” Diaz says in the documentary film Hot Coffee.

Diaz’s story was so extraordinary that it inspired John Grisham’s The Appeal, was featured in Hot Coffee, an award-winning documentary by Susan Saladoff, and will be turned into a feature film by Saladoff and writers Maryam Keshavarz and Paolo Marinou-Blanco. Diaz said they hope to begin shooting next spring.


Bush Administration Politicized the Justice Department

Why were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Justice so intent on keeping Diaz off the bench?

Diaz said that his prosecutions served multiple purposes—they halted his anti-tort reform votes, dried up money flowing to Democratic candidates, had a chilling effect on the Mississippi Supreme Court, and proved the local U.S. attorney’s Republican credentials during the Bush administration, when federal prosecutors were pressured to target political opponents—or else lose their jobs.

Diaz laughed when the Shepherd asked him if the U.S. Chamber of Commerce poured an estimated $1 million into opposing his candidacy because he voted against big business’ interests while on the bench.

“I did that all the time,” he said.

But perhaps more damningly, Diaz accepted campaign contributions from Paul Minor, a longtime friend, trial attorney and major donor to Democratic candidates in Mississippi. The chamber and the Republican establishment targeted Minor not only because he donated to Democrats—Diaz, a former Republican state legislator, seems to be an anomaly—but because his firm had earned $70 million from Mississippi’s tobacco lawsuit settlement.

Minor loaned Diaz money to combat the chamber’s heavy spending against him; after Diaz won his election, he recused himself from all cases involving Minor and his law firm.

But that wasn’t enough for prosecutor Lampton, who charged Diaz and Minor. Hearings later held by Congressman John Conyers confirmed that Lampton’s prosecution of Diaz—along with former Wisconsin U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic’s prosecution of Doyle administration employee Georgia Thompson, who was freed from prison immediately upon winning her appeal—were politically motivated to appease the Bush administration.

Although Diaz was acquitted, he said the damage had been done. Minor’s campaign contributions ceased and Republicans have taken over the governorship and both houses of the Mississippi legislature.

Diaz said a survey of the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decisions during a three-year period showed that the court failed to uphold even one plaintiff’s verdict, indicating that the threat of federal indictments were affecting decisions on the court.

“There’s no doubt about it—the other judges were frightened to death that this could happen to them as well,” Diaz said. “They were looking at their own decisions. They were scared to death of these outside groups monitoring their cases.”


Reforming Judicial Elections

Diaz spoke in Milwaukee last week at the winter meeting of the Wisconsin Association for Justice to recount his political prosecutions and discuss reforms that can be made to combat the influence of outside special interests on judicial campaigns.

“Personally, I have a problem with judicial elections,” Diaz told the Shepherd before his speech. “I don’t necessarily think that we should completely do away with judicial elections. But we need to rethink the way that we are re-electing judges.”

Diaz suggested holding retention elections for judges so that voters can keep them on the bench or not, developing an appointment process, or requiring public funding for judicial elections.

He said that attorneys and judges also need to do a better job of educating the public about their roles and issues facing the courts, so that voters don’t rely on 30-second ads distorting their records and the workings of the criminal justice system and the courts.

“There is no easy response in a 30-second ad to explain why I had to vote to reverse a case because of errors at the trial court,” Diaz said. “It’s fairly complicated and it’s not suited to a 30-second ad.”

Short of amending the U.S. Constitution, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision there’s little that can be done to reduce the amount of independent corporate spending in political and judicial campaigns. Diaz suggested improving transparency rules or requiring a vote of shareholders before a corporation can make a political donation, as is done in Great Britain.

“There’s no one silver-bullet solution,” Diaz said. “If you address one issue, it’s like Whac-a-Mole—another issue will pop up.”


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