On Thursday, the acid-tongued judge in Paul Manafort’s trial announced that he’d heard lawyers were rolling their eyes behind his back, and they’d better cut it out.
“Lawyers on both sides need to rein in their facial expressions,” Judge T.S. Ellis proclaimed from the bench, or risk signaling to others in the courtroom that they might be wondering: “‘Why do we have to put up with this idiot judge?’”
Given judge Ellis’ endless stream of interruptions, zingers, rambling personal anecdotes about his wife or pets, and demands for prosecutors to “move it along” — they might be.
As the first week of President Trump’s ex-campaign chief’s trial for alleged financial crimes draws to a close, the 78-year-old Judge Ellis seems to have so far thrown up more trouble for special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors than Manafort’s own defense team, observers told VICE News. Manafort’s attorneys have issued only a few objections and largely spared witnesses from tough cross-examination.
Judge Ellis, on the other hand, has repeatedly hectored prosecutors to push their case forward as quickly as possible, and interrupted to demonstrate how he wants witnesses to be questioned. Sometimes he's jumped in to ask the questions himself.
“He may be the smartest judge on that court.”
On Thursday, when prosecutor Greg Andres asked, “Your honor, is now a good time to take a break?”
Ellis tartly responded: “No, now is a good time for you to finish.”
Meanwhile, Ellis’ frequent personal asides — about his home in the country, the fact that he’s never used email and never plans to (“I have a telephone,” he said) and that he doesn’t watch television — have drawn ripples of muffled laughter from the 100-plus journalists and other observers who pack his courtroom, but occasionally have little to do with the process of deciding Manafort’s guilt.
After calling the prosecution and defense attorneys up to the bench for a confidential deliberation, Ellis remarked that he himself pushed that meeting longer than he had to.
“At my age, you’re inclined to tell stories, and I made them listen to one,” he said. “It had nothing to do with the case.”
“He’s not exactly Mr. Chuckles.”
Arguing in front of Ellis is no picnic, a lawyer who once had to do it told VICE News.
“I think he’s a fair judge and a good judge, but I found him very frustrating,” said Robert Deitz, a retired attorney who practiced civil law for two decades before taking senior national security jobs at the CIA and National Security Administration.
“He’s not exactly Mr. Chuckles,” Deitz said. “He tends to be very prickly.”
Despite Ellis’ tendency to tell rambling personal anecdotes, he has a brilliant legal mind, Deitz said.
“He may be the smartest judge on that court,” Deitz said. “It’s not like you’re trying a case in front of the village idiot.”
And as the first week of Manafort’s trial ended, Judge Ellis appeared to be lightening up a bit. Thursday featured fewer interruptions than Wednesday. And Friday, fewer still.
That change corresponded, coincidentally or not, to a shift in the prosecution’s focus away from documenting Manafort’s life of luxury and toward a deep dive into Manafort’s finances.
Ellis had been particularly assertive in pushing prosecutors not to “gild the lily” by introducing too much documentary evidence about Manafort’s most flamboyant expenditures. In particular, he blocked the introduction of some evidence they wanted to show the jury: pictures detailing Manafort’s extravagant wealth.
So while the internet gaped this week at photos of Manafort’s $15,000 ostrich and $18,500 python jackets as symbols of his outlandish spending, Ellis has put strict limits on introducing pictures of fancy suits or other expensive personal items.
Owning flashy clothes is not against the law, and focusing on that evidence risks stoking class envy that could bias the jury, Ellis said.
“It isn’t a crime to have a lot of money and to be profligate in your spending,” he said.
Ellis has been dealing mostly with Mueller’s prosecutors so far largely because this first week has featured the prosecution’s witnesses, observers pointed out. Ellis has given every indication of pushing back just as hard against Manafort’s defense team, said Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.
“The time to be concerned is if a Judge is much tougher on one side than the other in front of a jury,” Rocah said. “This judge doesn’t seem to be doing that.”
Cover image: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort stands with his attorneys before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis in a court room sketch, on the opening day of his trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Bill Hennessy.