The legal community was collectively astonished last week when Paul Manafort
received a roughly four-year sentence for serious financial crimes in
federal court. The judge, T.S. Ellis, had already made his contempt for
the case clear, and many court watchers expected something relatively
mild. But most court-watchers found the sentence Ellis imposed to be shocking:
it was about one-fifth of the minimum time set forth in federal sentencing
guidelines. In fact, it was even less than the time recommended by Manafort’s
How Much Power Do Judges Have in the Courtroom?
Judge Ellis has referred to himself in his courtroom as “a Caesar
in my own Rome.” That is in no doubt true. In fact, Ellis’s
Manafort’s trial and sentencing reveal just how much power judges have over their courtrooms. As everyone
knows, judges are supposed to follow the law and the rules of court. Even
so, they have enormous leeway over the conduct of trials, the handling
of information sharing (discovery) before trial, and many other critical
elements of court cases.
While juries decide the facts in jury trials, judges still have considerable
power over those trials. Judges control what evidence jurors get to see,
and they also can shape a jury’s perception of the lawyers for each
side. In fact, the writing was on the wall for Manafort’s sentencing
during the trial which preceded it. Judge Ellis chastised prosecutors
repeatedly and had to admit to the jury that he was wrong to do so after
one particularly egregious outburst.
Judge Ellis also made the astonishing statement at sentencing that influence
peddler Manafort - who stands convicted of tax and bank fraud in the millions
of dollars, along with separate crimes being handled by a different federal
judge - has “lived an otherwise blameless life.” Once again,
however, Ellis had the legal discretion to reach this conclusion, whether
others agree with it or not. That is just one example of why he is truly
Caesar in his own Rome.
The Importance of Getting on the Judge’s Good Side
Lawyers understand fully the power judges hold. Many -
ourselves included - make it a priority to stay on the good side of any judge we see at the
courthouse. Without going outside the law, the fact is that a judge can
make life miserable for a lawyer who’s on his or her bad side. Wise
attorneys do their best to keep a cordial relationship with trial judges,
even when they are required to disagree about a ruling or other issue.
Conversely, good judges don’t take it personally when lawyers ask
them to reconsider important rulings or respectfully disagree in other ways.
Proper Screening of Judges is Critical
The fact that judges wield such power makes it critical that they be screened
properly for the job. That’s why federal judges like Judge Ellis,
who are appointed for life and supposed to be immune from the political
winds, are required to be nominated by the President and confirmed by
the Senate before they take the bench. This appointment process is a critical
part of the checks and balances within our system of government.
There is a different vetting process for our state court judges in Florida,
but it is just as important.
Florida judges also have broad discretion to control their dockets and
courtrooms. They can still influence a case profoundly through their rulings
on pretrial motions and evidence. Just as in federal court, experience
and maturity are critical attributes for anyone who dons the black robe.
Contact an Experienced Trial Attorney at Roman & Gaynor in Clearwater
The Manafort trial is shocking proof of the impact a bad judge can have
your case. At Roman & Gaynor, our
Clearwater personal injury lawyers know how to take your case to trial and how to work with judges and opposing
counsel to secure favorable results for our clients.
Contact us today if you’ve been injured by the negligence of another person, product,
or entity. We are available 24/7!