T. S. Ellis III

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T. S. Ellis III
Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia
Assumed office
April 1, 2007
Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia
In office
August 6, 1987 – April 1, 2007
Appointed by Ronald Reagan[1]
Preceded by Robert R. Merhige Jr.
Succeeded by Mark Steven Davis
Personal details
Born Thomas Selby Ellis III
(1940-05-15) May 15, 1940 (age 78)
Bogotá, Colombia
Education Princeton University (B.S.E.)
Harvard Law School (J.D.)
Oxford University (Dipl)

Thomas Selby Ellis III (born May 15, 1940) is a Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Education and career

Born on May 15, 1940, in Bogotá, Colombia, Ellis graduated from Princeton University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Engineering in 1961. Ellis served in the United States Navy as a Naval aviator from 1961 to 1966. Ellis earned a Juris Doctor, magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School in 1969. Harvard awarded Ellis a Knox Fellowship for study in England. He then received a Diploma in Law in 1970 from Magdalen College, Oxford University. Ellis then entered private practice with the law firm of Hunton & Williams (now Hunton Andrews Kurth), founded in Richmond, Virginia, where he remained until 1987. His practice included a wide range of commercial litigation matters. He often worked with fellow Hunton & Williams attorney John Charles Thomas, who became Virginia's first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Ellis also was a lecturer at the College of William and Mary, from 1981 to 1983.[2]

Federal judicial service

Ellis was nominated by President Ronald Reagan on July 1, 1987, to a seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia vacated by Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 5, 1987, and received his commission on August 6, 1987. He took senior status on April 1, 2007.[2] He continues to hear cases in the Eastern District of Virginia, and also has been empowered to hear cases in the Western District of Virginia. Ellis has issued over 1,000 published decisions during his tenure. Ellis also occasionally sits by designation on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Record and rulings

John Walker Lindh

Ellis presided over the plea bargain and sentencing of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. He imposed a sentence of 20 years for two charges, aiding the Taliban and carrying weapons while committing a felony. He also imposed the Son of Sam law banning him from profiting from books written about his case.[3]

Franklin, Rosen, and Weissman

On January 20, 2006, Ellis sentenced former Defense Department employee Lawrence Franklin to 12 years and 7 months in prison and a $10,000 fine for passing national defense information to an Israeli diplomat and AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby group. In 2009, he altered the sentence to 10 months at a halfway house and community service, but chastised Franklin for not following "the rule of law".

On August 9, 2006, Ellis denied a motion to dismiss the case of two former AIPAC employees.[4] Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman were charged under the Espionage Act with illegally receiving and transmitting national defense information. Ellis wrote:

…both common sense and the relevant precedent point persuasively to the conclusion that the government can punish those outside of the government for the unauthorized receipt and deliberate retransmission of information relating to the national defense." (p. 53)[5]

Charges against Rosen and Weissman were dropped in 2009 by the government, which claimed in part that Ellis had placed too many barriers on its ability to prosecute the case successfully.

United States v. Rosen was also a pioneering use of the silent witness rule in a courtoom. The rule allows for sensitive (classified, or otherwise) evidence to be hidden from the public, but available to the jury & counsel, by the use of 'substitution' such as 'key cards'. Most previous attempts by the government to use the rule had been banned by various judges or the case had been settled before trial. Judge Ellis was the first to allow it, although he limited it to 4 minutes of use at trial, and devised a 'fairness test' as to whether the rule should be allowed, and to how much it would make the trial 'closed'. Critics worried about the Fifth amendment due process and Sixth amendment Confrontation Clause implications of the use of this rule. In particular, Ellis describes it as a 'partial closing' of the trial, while the sixth amendment guarantees a public trial.[6]

Khalid El-Masri

On Thursday, May 18, 2006, Ellis dismissed a lawsuit filed by Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen, against the CIA and three private companies allegedly involved with his kidnapping, transport, and torture in Kabul. Ellis explained his belief that a public trial would "present a grave risk of injury to national security",[7] though acknowledging that:

If El-Masri's allegations are true or essentially true, then all fair-minded people, including those who believe that state secrets must be protected, that this lawsuit cannot proceed, and that renditions are a necessary step to take in this war, must also agree that El-Masri has suffered injuries as a result of our country's mistake and deserves a remedy.[8]

Wikimedia Foundation v. NSA

On October 23, 2015, Ellis dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Wikimedia Foundation against the National Security Agency, finding that the plaintiffs had reverse engineered their assumptions of evidence.[9][10] This dismissal was vacated on appeal with respect to the foundation, though not for the other plaintiffs.[11]

Paul Manafort

In March 2018 Ellis assumed control over a set of criminal charges against Paul Manafort, former chair of the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign. The 18 counts filed in Virginia federal court include tax evasion and bank fraud, and are in addition to earlier charges filed in a Washington, D.C. court.[12] The government alleges that Manafort, with assistance from his associate Rick Gates, laundered over $30 million through offshore bank accounts between approximately 2006 and 2015.[13] On March 13 Ellis ordered Manafort held on $10 million bond and home confinement with GPS monitoring.[14] He set a trial date of July 10, 2018.[15] Manafort challenged Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's authority to bring these charges. In a May 4 hearing on the challenge, Ellis repeatedly suggested that the prosecutors were not really interested in prosecuting the charges, but had filed them to exert pressure on Manafort to cooperate with the special counsel's investigation into Trump. Ellis said he would rule on Manafort's challenge at a later date.[16]


Notable decisions

  • El-Masri v Tenet (order) (fas.org)
  • Franklin sentence reduction hearing (fas.org)

See also


  1. ^ Lynch, Sarah N. (May 4, 2018). "U.S. judge says Mueller should not have 'unfettered power' in Russia probe". Reuters. Retrieved May 5, 2018. 
  2. ^ a b "Ellis, Thomas Selby III – Federal Judicial Center". www.fjc.gov. 
  3. ^ Candiotti, Susan (October 4, 2002). "Walker Lindh sentenced to 20 years". CNN. Retrieved March 9, 2018. 
  4. ^ "Recent Case: District Court Holds That Recipients of Government Leaks Who Disclose Information "Related to the National Defense" May Be Prosecuted Under the Espionage Act" (PDF). Harvard Law Review. 120: 821. 2007. Retrieved October 30, 2017. 
  5. ^ "United States v Steven J Rosen, Keith Weissman : Memorandum Opinion" (PDF). Fas.org. Retrieved October 25, 2015. 
  6. ^ Johnathan M. Lamb, Pepperdine Law Review, Vol. 36, p. 213 (2008), The Muted Rise of the Silent Witness Rule in National Security Litigation, ssrn.com, SSRN 1125459Freely accessible 
  7. ^ "Americas | CIA 'torture' lawsuit thrown out". BBC News. May 18, 2006. Retrieved October 25, 2015. 
  8. ^ Day in Court Denied for Victim of CIA Kidnapping and Rendition, Khaled El-Masri Archived May 26, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ "Wikimedia v. NSA – D. Md. Opinion | American Civil Liberties Union". Aclu.org. Retrieved October 25, 2015. 
  10. ^ Farivar, Cyrus (May 17, 2012). "Judge tosses Wikimedia's anti-NSA lawsuit because Wikipedia isn't big enough". Ars Technica. Retrieved October 25, 2015. 
  11. ^ Stempel, Jonathan (May 23, 2017). "Wikipedia can pursue NSA surveillance lawsuit: U.S. appeals court". Reuters. Retrieved May 24, 2017. 
  12. ^ Barrett, Devlin; Hsu, Spencer S. (February 22, 2018). "Special counsel Mueller files new charges in Manafort, Gates case". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved February 22, 2018. 
  13. ^ Apuzzo, Matt; Schmidt, Michael S. (February 22, 2018). "Mueller Files New Fraud Charges Against Paul Manafort". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 23, 2018. 
  14. ^ Singman, Brooke; Gibson, Jake (March 13, 2018). "Manafort 'faces very real possibility' of life in prison, court order says". Fox News. Retrieved May 5, 2018. 
  15. ^ CNN, Caroline Kelly and Katelyn Polantz,. "Manafort trial set to begin July 10". Retrieved March 8, 2018. 
  16. ^ Polantz, Katelyn (May 5, 2018). "Judge in Manafort case says Mueller's aim is to hurt Trump". CNN. Retrieved May 5, 2018. 

External links

  • "Federal Judicial Profile". Website of the Federal Judicial Center. Retrieved March 28, 2006. 
Legal offices
Preceded by
Robert R. Merhige Jr.
Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia
Succeeded by
Mark Steven Davis
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