Meet The Judge Presiding Over Paul Manafort's Trial

Originally published on August 8, 2018 2:07 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The man presiding over the Manafort trial has been a vocal presence in the courtroom. Judge T.S. Ellis III does not hesitate to scold an attorney, cut short a line of questioning or offer a witty aside. To tell us more about who this judge is, Kevin Mikolashek joins us here in the studio. He's a former U.S. attorney who's prosecuted many cases in Judge Ellis' courtroom. Hi there.

KEVIN MIKOLASHEK: Hi, Ari. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good, thanks. So Judge Ellis is 78 years old. He's been on the bench more than 30 years, appointed by President Reagan. What else can you tell us about this man?

MIKOLASHEK: Well, I've appeared before him many times. It probably feels like more times than I actually appeared before him. But over the course of 11 years, I defended the government in civil cases and also investigated contract fraud cases before Judge Ellis. So he's a hard judge, to say the least.

SHAPIRO: What does that mean in terms of what happens in the courtroom?

MIKOLASHEK: Well, what you're seeing now in the Manafort case and what we've seen in practicing before him is that he manages his case more than the other judges do. He will interject and even ask questions when other judges may not do that.

SHAPIRO: The LA Times described him as the star of the Manafort trial, the indisputable center of attention. Was that also your experience trying more low-profile cases in his courtroom?

MIKOLASHEK: Well, he certainly was the center of attention, in part because he's the one wearing the black robe.

SHAPIRO: Right.

MIKOLASHEK: But also he is very intense about managing his courtroom, both in hearings and in trials. So he is not shy about vocalizing his opinions about the actions of counsel and the positions counsel are taking. And sometimes that's quite painful if you're the counsel to be the butt of his commentary.

SHAPIRO: Can you give me an example?

MIKOLASHEK: One example - I recall a civilian bar member, an attorney in a private case, who kept putting his hands in his pockets, and Judge Ellis was adamant about telling him don't do that. It's not a good look for you.

SHAPIRO: What? That has nothing to do with the law.

MIKOLASHEK: But it has everything to do with decorum.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MIKOLASHEK: But don't get me wrong. There is a soft side to him, a humorous side that is not biting like we're seeing in the Manafort case and like I've experienced many times. I remember on one occasion I appeared before a hearing with several parties, and Judge Ellis was scanning the courtroom for the attorney representing the government. I had happened to grow a beard by then, and he recognized me and said, Mr. Mikolashek, please step forward. And I said, yes, your honor. He goes, does your wife approve of your newly grown facial hair?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Wow.

MIKOLASHEK: And I said, well, yes, your honor, but if the court disfavors it, I will be happy to shave it. And he said, oh, Mr. Mikolashek, the court's reign does not extend that far.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MIKOLASHEK: So it's not all serious as we've seen in the Manafort case. I have been before him on many occasions where it has been serious and where the biting wit is more on the biting side and less on the humorous side. And it is torturous to be the subject of that, especially when you're in a courtroom full of people and decisions regarding the case you're prosecuting or litigating have to be made.

SHAPIRO: He has really been cracking the whip in the Manafort trial, sometimes snapping at the prosecution for what he sees as digressions, trying to make it move really quickly. How typical is that?

MIKOLASHEK: Ari, it's very typical for him to snap at government attorneys, but I'll also say it's equally typical for him to snap at members of the civilian bar. He is an equal opportunity pain inflictor, if you will. And it does feel painful while you're there. But I will tell you as well that in the end, he will put you through your paces, but he gets the right result. That's been my experience with him.

SHAPIRO: He doesn't seem like an ideologically driven judge.

MIKOLASHEK: He's driven by fairness and applying the law and ensuring that counsel who appear before him are diligent and, again, move with alacrity.

SHAPIRO: What was your first thought when you heard he was going to be handling the Manafort trial?

MIKOLASHEK: Justice will be done.

SHAPIRO: Really?

MIKOLASHEK: Fairness will be done, but that it's going to be a hard road for the prosecutors appearing before him.

SHAPIRO: That's former U.S. attorney Kevin Mikolashek, founder of The Mikolashek Group. Thanks for coming into the studio today.

MIKOLASHEK: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.