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Judge in Manafort Trial Is a ‘Caesar’ in His Own Rome

Category: Political News,Politics

Some lawyers who have been in his courtroom say it’s better to allow him to have the last word rather than engage in what are essentially contests over who has more intellectual firepower.

Away from the courthouse, lawyers and former clerks said, there is a softer side to the judge not always visible from the bench. The first judge to preside over a naturalization ceremony in Arlington Cemetery, Judge Ellis is known for growing emotional every time he administers the oath of citizenship.

To the jurors, the judge could not be more solicitous, joking about the plain lunch menu (“You won’t find baked alaska”). And it is free, he told the jurors on opening day, in case anyone had a fleeting urge to “slit their wrists” because they had been unfortunate enough to be picked from the jury pool.

He has clearly reveled in his captive audience, and can display a sense of comic timing “My hearing is not what it once was,” he said last week, pausing for a beat with comic effect. “Nothing is what it once was.” Born in Bogotá, Colombia, he took the opportunity during a sentencing to display his fluency in Spanish, questioning the defendant himself while an interpreter stood by.

Even if the spectators had come only for the Manafort case, he said, he was glad they got a chance to see the criminal justice system at work. He has weighed in on a variety of issues outside the courtroom, criticizing conditions at a Virginia prison and questioning whether sentencing laws are too harsh.

In more than three decades on the bench, Judge Ellis has presided over a number of high-profile cases: among them, the spy case against lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2009 and the corruption case of former Representative William J. Jefferson of Louisiana. In each one, the judge has wielded an acerbic wit and ironclad control of the courtroom.

As a lawyer at Hunton and Williams, a Virginia firm, he was “The Taz, short for the ripsnorting, whirlwind cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil,” with a reputation as a “relentless taskmaster,” John Charles Thomas, a former Virginia Supreme Court justice and colleague, wrote in an essay.

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