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16 North Alabama judges step aside from Scruggs case

BIRMINGHAM (AP) — Every eligible federal judge in North Alabama has stepped aside from presiding in the criminal contempt case of Mississippi trial lawyer Richard Scruggs, who is accused of disobeying an order by failing to turn over Katrina-related insurance documents to a court.

The 16 district judges and magistrate judges agreed to recuse themselves from the case at the request of Scruggs. His lawyers contend none of them should hear the case since they are colleagues of U.S. District Judge William Acker, who initiated the criminal contempt prosecution.

Appearance of conflict

U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler, who has been presiding in the case, agreed Wednesday to hand it over to avoid any appearance of a conflict. Coogler wrote that he had conferred with the other judges and that they agreed to step aside, too.

Despite the decision, Coogler wrote that he was of the "firm opinion" that he could consider the charges impartially.

Special prosecutors

Acker appointed three special prosecutors to handle the criminal contempt case after the U.S. attorney in Birmingham declined to pursue it.

The contempt charge accuses Scruggs of disobeying Acker's order to return all documents he received from two whistleblowers, sisters Kerri and Cori Rigsby.

The records were sought by lawyers for E.A. Renfroe and Co., a Birmingham business that was serving as a claims contractor for State Farm Insurance Co. after Katrina.

Scruggs gave the documents to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood rather than the judge.

He maintains Acker's order provided that documents taken from State Farm could be disclosed to law enforcement officials, including Hood's office.

The sisters, who were processing claims, have said they uncovered evidence that State Farm was unfairly handling claims after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Scruggs, a highly successful plaintiffs' lawyer, is the brother-in-law of U.S. Sen. Trent Lott.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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