News & Politics

5 Things You Should Know About the Judge Overseeing the First Trial of the Russia Probe

He was well-known in Virginia’s legal community long before the Manafort trial.

Photo Credit: MSNBC (via YouTube)

At 78, Judge T.S. Ellis III is now presiding over one of the most high-profile cases of his career: the trial of President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is facing multiple federal counts of bank fraud and tax evasion. Ellis has been a frequent source of frustration to prosecutors during Manafort’s trial in Alexandria, Virginia, discouraging testimony they consider relevant and showing his skepticism about the charges. Ellis’ name has been in the media a lot this week, especially with the prosecution having brought its star witness—Manafort’s former business partner, Rick Gates—to the witness stand and the judge making it clear, during Gates’ testimony, that he views the prosecutors as the ones with the heavy lifting to do. But the Bogotá, Colombia-born Ellis was well-known in Virginia’s legal community long before the Manafort trial.

Here are five interesting facts about Judge Ellis’ background. 

1. Ellis Replaced Anti-Segregationist Robert R. Merhige, Jr. in Virginia

Nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Ellis is known for his conservative leanings. The U.S. Senate was controlled by Democrats at the time; regardless, the Senate voted to confirm him for a seat on United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. And the person Ellis replaced was Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr., appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. Merhige, a more liberal judge than Ellis, is best remembered for ordering public schools in Virginia to desegregate; at one point, Merhige feared violent acts from segregationists and was under the protection of the U.S. Marshals Service. And in 1970, Merhige ordered the University of Virginia to admit female students.  

2. Ellis Sentenced John Walker Lindh to 20 Years, Invoking the “Son of Sam” Law

When U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one of the people captured as an enemy combatant in November 2001 turned out to be a United States citizen: John Walker Lindh, who the media dubbed “the American Taliban” because of his allegiance to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In February 2002, a federal grand jury indicted Lindh on multiple conspiracy charges; he could have received three life sentences but agreed to a plea bargain. After pleading guilty to providing armed support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in prison without parole by Judge Ellis—who imposed the Son of Sam law, meaning that Ellis cannot profit financially from the crimes he was imprisoned for.

3. Ellis Threw Out 7 Corruption Charges in William J. Jefferson Corruption Case

In 2009, Louisiana Rep. William J. Jefferson was found guilty of multiple corruption charges—including racketeering, money laundering and bribery—and sentenced to 13 years in prison by Ellis. Jefferson entered a federal prison in 2012, but in 2017, Ellis threw out seven of the ten charges Jefferson  had been convicted of and ordered that he be released from prison. Signing off an agreement between Jefferson’s attorneys and federal prosecutors that ended the ex-congressman’s incarceration, Ellis determined that the five years Ellis had spent in prison were sufficient punishment. 

“So, Mr. Jefferson, this ends a long saga,” Ellis told Jefferson in court. “You have paid your debt.”

4. Ellis Dismissed Civil Lawsuit Against Blackwater’s Erik Prince

President Trump has praised Ellis during Manafort’s Trial; he obviously appreciates the judge’s skepticism in the case. But there may be another reason Trump likes him: in 2011, Ellis dismissed a civil case against Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince, who is the brother of Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. Under the Bush administration, Blackwater (a private security firm) was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, two former Blackwater employees, married couple Brad and Melan Davis, sued Blackwater and Prince—alleging that the company had overbilled the government for its work protecting government employees in those countries. And in 2011, Ellis dismissed Prince from the lawsuit, saying there was no evidence Prince himself participated in or had any knowledge of the alleged overbilling.

5. Ellis Sentenced Defense Department Employee Lawrence Franklin to 12 Years in Prison….Before Greatly Reducing the Sentence 

In the mid-2000s, Lawrence Franklin—a former employee of the U.S. Defense Department—pled guilty to several espionage-related charges: Franklin was accused of sharing defense information with an Israeli diplomat and the pro-Israel lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). And in 2006, Ellis sentenced him to 12 years and seven months in prison as well as a $10,000 fine. But in 2009, Ellis reduced the sentence to 10 months in a halfway house.  

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Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.