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Words, April 10

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“ ‘King of Torts' Cops a Plea,” was the headline, and you can tell that the writer derived pleasure from it, as who wouldn't. “When a lawyer's laid low, the sun shines brighter,” Helen Keller once wrote, “and the birds sing more sweetly.”

The news article was about the famous Mississippi trial lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, who recently pled guilty to a charge of conspiring to bribe a judge. I received a transcript of the hearing, and my source was more interested in Scruggs' language than his ethics. This is Scruggs when the judge asked him to respond to the prosecutor's version of events:

“It's not exactly as the prosecutor allocuted, in that there was no intent to bribe the judge [at that time]; it was an intent to earwig the judge, Judge Lackey, and that that — the earwigging idea was not originated by me or anyone in our firm, although we went along with it …” Later, he admitted to membership in the bribery conspiracy. But let's get back to the earwigging.

My source, who's spent considerable time in courtrooms, says he's never heard of earwigging a judge, or anyone else. Neither have I. But the verb earwig is in the Random House: “to fill the mind of with prejudice by insinuations.”

The noun earwig refers to a nocturnal insect. The name comes from an old wives' tale that earwigs burrow through human ears to lay eggs in the brain. They don't. Thank goodness.

The verb allocuted is new to me too. Allocution, the noun, is “a formal speech, especially one of an incontrovertible or hortatory nature.” I wonder if lawyers refer to “the allecutor” and “the allocutee.” I wouldn't put it past them.

Until now, Scruggs was most famous for smiting the tobacco companies and for being the brother-in-law of Trent Lott. An actor named Colm Feore played Scruggs in a 1999 movie about the tobacco case. Another movie is being made about North Little Rock lawyer Tab Turner, who defeated the Ford Motor Co. Michael Douglas will play Turner.

Be on the lookout, Mr. Turner. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown of King of Torts.

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