Court watchers and other interested persons are getting a close look inside a Virginia federal court room on how judges act. Judge T. S. Ellis, III presiding over the Paul Manafort trial has a style all his own. He has been testy with the prosecution lawyers since day one. Real court drama is often stranger than fiction. Judges are human—as Judge Ellis stated on Thursday “this robe doesn’t make me anything other than human.” Although, it appears as if the prosecution team and Judge Ellis are in a constant dog fight. Across the river in Washington, D.C. federal district Judge Emmet Sullivan is trying a different type of case.
Judges’ personalities, quirks, demeanors, tempers, court room styles vary from as many ways as there are judges. Judge Ellis appears to currently focus his harsh attention and comments on the prosecution lawyers. He accused the prosecution team of crying or at least having water in their eyes, frowning, looking down (presumably at notes) and taking too long with their case presentation. At times, it appears as if Judge Ellis is against the prosecution. Most of the criticism has occurred out of the presence of the jury. With the jury, the judge has appeared jovial making jokes about lunch and other court room matters.
On Wednesday, the judge rebuked the prosecution in front of the jury for allowing an IRS expert witness to remain in the court room for the entire length of the trial. Usually witnesses and potential witnesses are sequestered which means they must remain outside of the court room until called or excused. By Thursday, the prosecutors had filed a complaint against the judge for his failure to recall that he granted prior permission for the IRS witness to remain. And in a fashion unlikely of many judges, Judge Ellis admitted to the jury that he made a mistake—stating he is human. No one knows what effect this mistake may have on the jury. Once impressions are made of attorneys, it may be difficult for a juror to totally disregard what caused the impression—even if asked to do so. In other words, once the cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to put it back in.
In another federal court room today in Washington, D.C. another federal judge is presiding over a government case. In an immigration asylum case presided over by Judge Emmet Sullivan, some bold statements were also made against the government. Upon learning that the government had violated an agreement, Judge Sullivan made one of the boldest orders that I ever recall a judge making. Enraged over the government’s failure to follow an earlier commitment to refrain from deporting the plaintiffs in the case –at least before the hearing, Judge Sullivan demanded that a government airplane return a mother and child seeking asylum back to the U.S. At the time of the court hearing, the plane was already in the air headed to El Salvador—in direct defiance of the government’s agreement to the court. The judge almost found Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt of court –saying “this is pretty outrageous.” Judge Sullivan further demanded that the government refrain from removing any plaintiffs in the case who are seeking asylum from gang and domestic violence. Judge Sullivan shows judges are human and bold too.
In the cases of Judge Ellis and Judge Sullivan, the comments and actions made by both are indicative of the vastly different styles of judges. As a trial lawyer, I prefer that judges allow me to try my clients’ cases without snide remarks and what I perceive as unfair rulings. Most trial lawyers will agree that we prefer a judge who lets us try our case without much interruption, unless ruling on motions or objections. From trying hundreds of cases, it is still often difficult to read a judge’s mind or motives.
I understand that judges are only human. Whatever style they exhibit, I always prefer a judge who is fair and just– no matter what must be done to achieve justice.
Washington, D.C. based Debbie Hines is a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She is often seen in various media outlets as a legal analyst.