The William Jefferson Chronicles

William Jefferson case judge is old school ruler of court
by Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday July 28, 2009, 2:30 AM

ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- It was the last day of testimony in the government's case against former Rep. William Jefferson and prosecution and defense attorneys, out of the jury's hearing, were haggling over the relevance of a flow chart showing how some of the money allegedly exacted by the congressman's family from business deals he aided in Africa ended up paying Harvard tuition for one of Jefferson's daughters.

"Having paid some Harvard tuition, I doubt that it was worth it, " said Judge T.S. Ellis III, Harvard Law School class of 1969. He went on to suggest that colleges these days largely serve a purpose once more capably performed by the military of quarantining adolescents from the broader society, while doing little to provide the classical education that was once their charge.

"We're losing it, our culture, " Ellis, 69, fretted from the bench. "In the old days every schoolboy could translate the Aeneid, " he said, though he allowed he is not old enough to have been one of those schoolboys.

It was trademark Ellis: quirky, caustic, a bit haughty, and decidedly old school. Offering what amounted to a commercial interruption from a bygone age, a man who bristled at every turn about the slow pace of the six-week trial took 60 seconds to issue an unsolicited indictment of the modern era.

For six weeks, Thomas Selby Ellis III -- known to his friends as Tim -- has been the dominant presence in the courtroom on the ninth floor of Federal District Court where Jefferson's fate will be decided.

It will be Ellis who will deliver the jury instructions. If Jefferson is convicted, it will be Ellis who will determine his sentence and decide whether the former New Orleans congressman must await the outcome of the certain appeal as a prisoner or free on bail.

In a hearing Monday, Ellis pushed closing arguments back until Wednesday and refused a defense motion to dismiss 14 of the 16 counts of public corruption against Jefferson. He deferred a ruling on an obstruction of justice charge.

He also gave prosecutors and attorneys a draft of his proposed instructions to the jury, estimating that it will take about two hours for him to explain them to the eight women and four men who will decide the case.

Ellis, a Navy flier between his undergraduate education at Princeton University and his legal education, first at Harvard and then at Oxford University, where he received an additional diploma in law, is a commanding figure.

He is crisp, knowledgeable and demanding, well-prepared and self-assured, if occasionally cranky, short-tempered and given to the odd excursion into cultural criticism and personal anecdote. How else would those attending the Jefferson trial know that the judge finds the "clicker" he uses while watching TV frustratingly complicated.

It has been estimated, Ellis said last week, that a judge in a case like this will make more than 100,000 judgment calls.

"It's not a perfect world, " he said, acknowledging that he is bound to be wrong now and again, though it is plain from his demeanor that he thinks that is seldom the case.

Or as an anonymous poster wrote of Ellis on The Robing Room -- a Web site in which lawyers can rate and comment on the performance of federal district court judges -- "Needs to prove that he is the smartest person in the courtroom. Usually he is."

Yet Ellis also seems aware of his touch of hubris.

Last Wednesday -- the same day he offered his Harvard critique -- Ellis advised the court that he had been sent a cartoon by a member of the jury depicting a lawyer or litigant looking up "asking the judge to stop being so judgmental."

He gently asked the jury to refrain from sending any further such missives his way, while suggesting that people would be surprised to find out from "my wife how long it takes for me to make a choice at a restaurant."

Then, in answer to another jury question, Ellis identified the judge whose portrait hangs in the back of his courtroom as Oren R. Lewis, who served on the bench from 1960 until his death at 80 in 1983.

"I was not particularly fond of him, " said Ellis noting the irony that Lewis had a reputation for being an "irascible and irritable" jurist, and "now 40 years later, I find myself presiding in this courtroom, looking at his portrait, " and being critiqued by members of the bar "for the same reasons I disliked him."

In fact, Lewis, who was known as "Roarin' Oren, " had a reputation as a shoot-from-the-hip judge very unlike Ellis. But what he shared with Ellis was a sometimes anomalous collection of traits that led the president of the Arlington County Bar Association to describe Lewis, at the unveiling of his portrait, as "outspoken, courageous and intimidating yet a friendly, warm person."

Ellis can be all those things, depending on where you're sitting in the courtroom.

He has been unfailingly warm and solicitous in his dealings with the jury.

To the prosecutors he has been a demanding law school professor -- frequently correcting and rephrasing their questions, while also siding with them in his rulings far more often than with the defense, whose legal arguments, he has indicated in any number of comments out of hearing of the jury, he finds tenuous at best.

And while Jefferson has appeared unruffled throughout the trial, facing Ellis in the event of a conviction cannot be a pleasant prospect.

Ellis has already sentenced two other figures in the case, who pleaded guilty and testified as witnesses against Jefferson, to stiff prison terms.

"Public corruption is the worst kind of virulent and malignant cancer, " Ellis said in 2006 when he sentenced Vernon Jackson, the CEO of iGate Inc., to seven years, three months in prison. A few months earlier he sentenced Bret Pfeffer to eight years behind bars.

As testimony drew to a close last week, Ellis took out his impatience on the defense, even though it occupied a small fraction of the trial's time. But on at least two occasions, his anger boomeranged to their benefit. At first he sought to keep the defense from paying tapes to impeach the testimony of Noreen Griffin because he thought the "rigmarole, " of having the jurors put on their headsets would take too much time. But ultimately, in a frustrated outburst, he told defense attorney Amy Jackson to play the tapes, but be quick about it.

And then on Thursday, Ellis again ruled that most of the tapes Jefferson's attorneys wanted to play in their defense presentation were irrelevant. Robert Trout, the lead defense counsel who Ellis has treated with the deference of a peer, declared that Ellis' rulings were "eviscerating the defense." In an instant, Ellis was vehemently urging the prosecution to withdraw its objections and let the tapes be played, which is what happened.

It was a dramatic reversal from an experienced judge who did not want to lay the case open to reversal on appeal, but it was also the act of a dependably idiosyncratic jurist who explained that he needed the matter settled quickly one way or the other because his 93-year-old mother was waiting for him and he dared not be late.

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Capital bureau reporter Bruce Alpert contributed to this report.

Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.

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