“Focus on the elements of the offense,” the 78-year-old jurist interjected Tuesday as Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye described Paul Manafort as a man who believed he was above the law.
Soon after, Ellis interrupted again, as Asonye sketched for jurors Manafort’s luxurious lifestyle.
“It isn’t a crime to be profligate in your spending,” Ellis said.
He soon admonished defense attorney Thomas Zehnle in a similar fashion.
“I take it you plan to offer evidence?” he asked as Zehnle extolled Manafort’s contributions to American politics. Then say so, Ellis suggested.
As the federal judge in Alexandria oversees the trial of President Trump’s onetime campaign chairman on tax and bank fraud charges, his sharp demeanor comes as no surprise to lawyers who appear before him often. Ellis sentenced Manafort on March 7 to 47 months in prison.
“He has torn my head off in front of my wife multiple times,” said Kevin Mikolashek, who recently left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria to start his own consulting firm.
With degrees from Princeton, Harvard and Oxford and 31 years on the bench, Ellis is formidably sharp. And although he might scold prosecutors for not meeting his high standards, in trials Ellis often uses his intellect to their benefit.
“It’s important for him that everyone in the courtroom knows he is the smartest person in that courtroom, and just be aware that he usually is,” defense lawyer John Zwerling says he warns lawyers who are new to the District. “So you better be on your A game.”
Ellis regularly interrupts trial testimony with his own questions and demands that certain lines of inquiry be cut short, clearing up ambiguity that defense attorneys hoped to create. More than one lawyer has tried to block him from doing so with pretrial motions or mid-case demands for a mistrial. Several have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, arguing that Ellis’s interventions made a fair trial impossible.
The appeals court has repeatedly struck down those claims, saying Ellis’s questions were posed in the service of clarity.
“Even if the district court’s questions could be read to indicate some level of skepticism or disbelief . . . these isolated statements fail to establish any partiality or bias” that would overturn a guilty verdict, one 2007 decision reads.
“A tart remark or two might be what is needed to keep a lengthy trial on track,” the court found in another case the year before.
Lawyers say that although Ellis might be tough on them, politics is not the Reagan appointee’s motivation.
“He is personally a Republican, and his political opinions did not line up with mine, but I literally cannot recall an instance where I thought that was an issue. He’s not an ideological judge, he’s a law-driven judge,” said Emily Martin, general counsel for the National Women’s Law Center and a former clerk for Ellis.
“He’s actually had a lot of lefty clerks over the years,” Martin said.
In sentencing hearings, Ellis preaches a gospel of personal responsibility, giving the same speech to every guilty party, from American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh to a low-level drug dealer: “Life is making choices and living with the consequences of the choices we make.”
When a defendant with autism recently appeared on a probation violation, Ellis angrily dismissed theargument that the condition explained the offense, saying there were people in his family with autism.
“I have a problem with using mental diagnoses . . . to excuse conduct,” he said. “We need to take responsibility.”
Yet Zwerling’s partner Cary Citronberg said that when offenders do take responsibility, Ellis can show compassion. The judge recently cited the same relatives when sentencing an autistic man to less than three years in prison on child pornography charges that carried recommendations of 30 years to life. He also refused to issue that sentence until the Bureau of Prisons had committed to putting the man in a facility with appropriate treatment options.
He recently urged prosecutors to cut a deal with one man facing a long mandatory minimum sentence and appointed a high-powered defense attorney to help another.
“He’s not afraid to use his discretion to help defendants when he believes it’s the right thing to do,” Citronberg said. “So, if Judge Ellis thinks Mueller is acting improperly or Manafort is being treated unfairly, it’s certainly possible he’ll use the full weight of his power in potentially unpredictable ways to achieve a just outcome.”
Ellis has been careful to accommodate Manafort, granting his legal team an extra week to review evidence and promising to keep from jurors prejudicial details of the lobbyist’s Ukraine work.
The judge can be warm and self-deprecating, cracking jokes in court about his age and sharing anecdotes about his wife and children. As lawyers on Tuesday entered an agreement regarding emails that will be introduced at trial, he asked for a plain-English explanation, saying “I don’t have an email account; I never have and I never will.”
He talks to Spanish-speaking defendants in their language, recalling his own childhood in Colombia.
“At my age, one does a lot of reminiscing,” he told potential jurors Tuesday before fondly recalling the installation of his courtroom’s first white-noise machine.
In private practice in the years before he took the bench, Ellis was also considered a demanding but ultimately good-natured colleague.
“He was known as ‘The Taz,’ short for the ripsnorting, whirlwind cartoon character, the Tasmanian devil,” former Virginia Supreme Court justice John Charles Thomas said in an essay. The two met at the Richmond-based firm Hunton & Williams, where Ellis worked for 18 years. “The word was that Ellis was a relentless taskmaster; that he would give a research assignment, then do part of it himself and if the associate did not find a case that Ellis had found there would be hell to pay; and that no associate who had ever worked with Ellis had lasted more than a year or two.”
Thomas and Ellis became professional partners and friends.
Alan Rudlin, who worked with Ellis on a case in New Mexico in the late 1970s, agreed that Ellis was intimidating at first.
“His eyes have a very piercing look, particularly when he’s fixing you with some tough questions, which was true in the firm and I’m sure is even more true in court,” Rudlin said. “He’d give you that look.”
Martin said Ellis was never “snappish” with clerks the way he was with attorneys; although his standards remain high, his manner is far more gentle. There was “inside the family and outside the family.”
He follows his clerks’ careers and works to ensure their success. But when they come back to his courtroom, they, too, are held to his exacting standards and subject to his roasting.
Mikolashek recalled once appearing opposite one of the judge’s former clerks. Ellis assured him he would not be biased.
Besides, the judge added, “I am confident that my former clerk did not play a substantial role in writing this brief. If he had, there would be no fewer than four split infinitives.”