In Rare Assembly, Judge Lobbies for Jail Space
Thursday, November 30, 2006
The judge stood in the well of the courtroom, like a lawyer addressing the jury. But the jury box was filled with congressional staffers and federal officials, and there was no defendant, or even a trial.
It's not every day that a federal judge summons two U.S. senators, a senator-elect, three congressmen, the U.S. attorney and other judges to a public meeting in his courtroom. Yet that's what U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III did yesterday.
Forgoing his judicial robe in favor of a gray suit and yellow tie, Ellis engaged in a gentle version of the time-honored Washington art of lobbying. What drew his attention was not one of the spectacular terrorism cases for which the Alexandria courthouse has become known. Instead, Ellis was seeking to drum up support for building two facilities he said are urgently needed in Northern Virginia: a jail for federal prisoners and a halfway house for offenders nearing release.
With growing numbers of federal prisoners crowding the Alexandria city jail and being sent as far away as Ohio, Ellis told the group, the problem "has reached crisis proportions."
The judge had hoped to have an audience of congressional leaders. In a Nov. 14 letter, he summoned Sen. John W. Warner (R), Sen. George Allen (R), Sen.-elect James Webb (D) and Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (D), Frank R. Wolf (R) and Thomas M. Davis III (R). "Your assistance in these matters is vital and I therefore earnestly hope that you will attend," Ellis wrote.
None of the legislators came, but Moran, Wolf and Warner sent staff members. They sat in a jury box that included the chief federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who sat next to acting federal public defender Michael Nachmanoff. A few feet away, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, clad in a blue sweater and blue dress, held court at the defense counsel's table, surrounded by several U.S. magistrate judges.
Ellis said his intention was to stir up public support for the prison facilities and pronounced himself satisfied that he had helped "get the train out of the station." But the meeting itself was also a source of debate. Judges have been known to speak out on policy issues in speeches and bar association events, but legal specialists said it was virtually unprecedented for a judge to summon legislators and executive branch officials to a public meeting in a courtroom.
Stephen Gillers, a specialist in legal ethics at New York University's law school, praised Ellis and said the code of conduct for U.S. judges allows "extrajudicial activities" designed to improve the legal system. "Three cheers for Judge Ellis," he said. "Bringing public attention to this issue makes a whole lot of sense. I wish more judges would do it."
But Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland and a former high-level Justice Department official, said Ellis had "put a lot of people in an awkward position. I don't think any U.S. officials who were invited really had much of an option but to go for fear of what might happen to cases they bring before him."
Greenberger expressed sympathy for "the policy direction" but said the meeting raised "serious conflict-of-interest problems." Judges are supposed to be neutral arbiters of executive and legislative branch decisions, he said, and Ellis is likely to hear cases, such as prisoner civil rights lawsuits, that involve prison crowding issues.
Ellis, 66, is known in the Alexandria courthouse for the thoroughness of his legal reasoning and opinions along with his occasionally irascible demeanor. An appointee of President Ronald Reagan in 1987, he has handled many high-profile cases, including that of John Walker Lindh, the Californian who fought for the Taliban, and the prosecution of two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The issue that aroused Ellis's concern stems from the rapid increase in federal prisoners in Alexandria over the past decade. Under a contract with the federal government, the Alexandria Detention Center accepts federal inmates, who have included Lindh; Sept. 11, 2001, conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui; convicted spies Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames; and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was being held for refusing to reveal sources for a news story.
The number of federal inmates has grown to nearly 200 at times, and the jail has occasionally had to stop accepting them. Hundreds of other prisoners on trial in Alexandria are being sent to jails several hours away in Virginia and even to Ohio after sentencing but before they are sent to their permanent prisons.
Ellis solicited ideas on how to solve the problem yesterday, and the consensus seemed to be that expanding the Alexandria jail was more realistic than building one. Participants, including federal prison and probation officials, vowed to hold further meetings.
Yesterday, though, there was no doubt who was in charge. Ellis called on people before they spoke, including U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan, who raised her hand several times. He said it was unfortunate that the Moran staffer was 10 minutes late. When a sheepish staffer from Wolf's office arrived 13 minutes late, Ellis greeted her and said: "This is a very important and urgent problem. We need the congressman's assistance to solve it. That's why I wrote the letter."