Judicial Bias: the fight in the back hallway

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Yesterday’s light sentence of Paul Manafort leads observers to wonder what happened. Why would Judge T. S. Ellis depart from the federal sentencing guidelines (19-24 years)? Why would a judge depart so egregiously to render a sentence of 47 months?


These questions and the judge’s remarks painting Mr. Manafort as an ill-fated first-time offender who had led a blameless life beg for answers.

Searching the internet for cases of judicial bias or misconduct led to the case of Judge John C. Murphy of Brevard County, Florida that brought an unexpected laugh.

Judge John C. Murphy of Brevard County, Florida, made headlines in June 2014, when he was recorded on camera challenging a public defender to a fistfight. Andrew Weinstock, the public defender acting in the normal course of representation, had refused to have his client waive the right to a trial. This set off a number of heated remarks which included Judge Murphy stating: “You know, if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now.” When Weinstock refused to sit down, Judge Murphy then told him: “If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.”

Deputy Bryon Griffin, who was at the scene, described it as follows: “I stepped into the back hallway and saw the two of them grabbing ahold of each other’s suitcoat, pushing each other back and forth…I heard Judge Murphy say, ‘Do you wanna f-ck with me, do you?’ and I heard Mr. Weinstock say, ‘Alright.’ I immediately stepped in and separated the two of them as they still had a grasp on each other.”

Top 5 list of real-life judicial misconduct, Ballotpedia

We need a laugh in times like this when different ones of us might welcome a good fist fight in the back hall, but the humor is momentary. An article in Forbes this morning suggests political bias behind Judge Ellis’s lenient sentence of Manafort when compared with a similar case of a Democrat in 2009:

Take a comparison of the Manafort case with another prosecution of a political figure, a Democratic Congressman from Louisiana named William J. Jefferson. …

Manafort may have gotten off easy with four years, but Ellis threw the book at Jefferson. In 2009 Ellis sentenced Jefferson to 13 years, the longest sentence of any Congressman to that date. … It seems that while Judge Ellis can sympathize with Manafort, the Republican presidential campaign manager, he did not sympathize with Jefferson.

Charles Tiefer, “Judge who let manafort off easy with 47 months has conservative pedigree,” forbes, March 7, 2019.

Describing Paul Manafort at yesterday’s sentencing, Judge Ellis cedited Mr. Manafort for having been “a good friend” and “a generous person” who “has lived a blameless life” and “earned the admiration of a number of people.” It’s commendable judicial practice to offer some hope to the person being sent to prison. But might not these same attributes have been said of Al Capone, John Gotti, or Gordon Liddy, all good, generous family men who, until they were caught, had led “blameless lives”?.

Given Judge Ellis’s disrespectful remarks and angry outbursts against the Mueller investigator prosecutors, and his rulings against the admission of evidence, is it unthinkable to imagine the “Caesar of his own little Rome,” challenging the prosecutor to a fist fight in the back hallway behind the bar?

— Gordon C. Stewart