Sentencing Disparity in the American Oligarchy

Judge T.S. Ellis’s lenient sentence of Paul Manafort came as a jolt. It should not have. I know better. So do you.

I am an ordained minister of the gospel who has spent lots of time in courtrooms. It was a short step from pulpits of privilege to a criminal defense law firm founded by the American Indian Movement and African-American civil rights center. I left the pulpit, but the faith that points to an essential human dignity went with me. Irrespective of the seriousness of the charges and crimes, I saw, or tried to see, a dignity and worth in defendants no court sentence can take away.

Legal Rights Center clients convicted of serious crimes were sentenced to the state prisons, about as far from the comforts of federal prisons as their neighborhoods were from gated communities and country clubs.

Unlike the inmates of Faribault and Stillwater who have been found guilty of street crimes, a great number of the guests of the federal correctional system are doing time for white collar crimes. There’s a world of difference. Yet, as to sentence disparity, they are the same.

Comparing Judge Ellis’s 13 year sentence of African-American Congressman William J. Jefferson (D) from Louisiana in 2009 with the 47 month sentence of the former chair of the president’s presidential campaign committee draws attention to the ugly realities of race and class we often see but quickly forget or choose not to see at all.

We do not live in a democracy; we live in an oligarchy—
“government by the few, especially despotic power exercised
by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish
purposes.” I’ve been waiting for people in high places to say it.

Goldman Sachs executives’ testimony Tuesday before the
Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations4 brought the
elephant into the living room, but the name of this species of government remains unspoken for understandable reasons.

A democratic republic is a constitutional form of government
where the people rule through their elected representatives
gathered in deliberative bodies. The faces and voices of Goldman
Sachs’s executives demonstrated the intransigent arrogance of the
private institutional concentration of the wealth and power of deregulated capitalism.

The matter is growing more serious.

The “small and privileged group” that operates corruptly and
selfishly knows that elections are bought and sold in America. No
one gets elected without big money. Goldman Sachs executives’ testimony Tuesday before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations brought the elephant into the living room, but the name of this species of government remains unspoken for understandable reasons.

Excerpt, gordon c. stewart, “The american oligarchy — 4/29/10,” p.126, Be Still! Departure from collective madness (2017, wipf & stock).

Nine years after publishing The American Oligarchy, the reality is, for the most part, the same. But there is a difference. The selfishness of “despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes” (Encylopaedia Brittanica definition of oligarchy) feels heavier now. The judge’s lenient sentence of Paul Manafort caught me off-guard. How quickly we forget!

“The American Oligarchy” was first published by MinnPost.com with the title “They may squirm in hearings, but Wall Street Oligarchs know who has he power.” With Minnpost’s generous copyright permission, it became one of Be Still!’s 49 essays on faith and the news.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 9, 2019.

Judicial Bias: the fight in the back hallway

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