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 own lawyers.

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 conduct duringManafort’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.

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