The Eastern District of Virginia isn't called the “rocket docket” for nothing.
There is no dillydallying in the trial of Paul Manafort.
Jury selection lasted but a few hours. The federal judge presiding over the case has repeatedly reminded the lawyers of his impatience and routinely interrupts their questioning of witnesses to speed them up. The most dramatic part of the trial has quickly come and gone. The whole thing could be over in three weeks, leaving plenty of time before Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman has to stand a second trial on separate charges in September.
High-profile trials of deep-pocketed defendants can often drag on for months. But Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s initial prosecution of Manafort on charges of financial fraud is moving briskly along, and its speedy pace is largely due to the particular federal district court where the case is being tried.
The Eastern District of Virginia is famous in the legal community for being the nation’s original “rocket docket”—a jurisdiction where strict rules and a deeply embedded judicial culture help move cases to trial more rapidly than almost anywhere else. In civil cases, the court has been ranked first for speed year after year, but the reputation extends to criminal prosecutions as well.
The “rocket docket” label dates back decades and is closely associated with the late Judge Albert V. Bryan, for whom the federal courthouse in Alexandria—where Manafort’s trial is taking place—is named. “It was the pride of the judges that they were the quickest docket in the country,” said John Zwerling, a criminal-defense attorney who’s been arguing cases there since 1970. Zwerling recalled a case in which Bryan asked the prosecuting attorney how many witnesses he planned to call. Nine, the prosecutor said. “Well, call your best four,” the judge replied.
“They are much less speedy now than they used to be,” Zwerling told me, “but they’re still very fast.”
Nowadays, few jurists embody that spirit more than Judge T. S. Ellis III, the acerbic, 78-year-old Ronald Reagan appointee who has been keeping a tight rein on the Manafort trial. He has frequently admonished the lawyers—particularly the prosecution—for their questioning and even for their body language, and he seems intent on expediting the trial at every opportunity. He’s stopped the government from pursuing lines of testimony, including limiting how much time and detail Mueller’s prosecutors could devote to describing Manafort’s “lavish lifestyle.”
“The government doesn’t want to prosecute somebody because they wear nice clothes, do they?” Ellis said when the government elicited testimony that Manafort had spent more than $900,000 on fancy clothing, including an ostrich jacket. “Let’s move on.”
That heavy-handed approach is familiar to lawyers who have appeared before Ellis. “Some judges are more reticent than others. Judge Ellis probably speaks his mind more than some,” said Dabney J. Carr IV, a Richmond-based patent attorney at the firm Troutman Sanders.
But while Ellis “would probably be the same anywhere he was,” Carr said, much of the Manafort trial’s brisk pace can be attributed to the traditions of Virginia’s Eastern District. Take jury selection, for example, which was done by early afternoon on the first day of the trial. Unlike in some federal courts, attorneys in the Eastern District are barred from questioning individual potential jurors, speeding up the process. In I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s 2007 perjury trial in Washington, D.C., by contrast, voir dire took three days. Lawyers for each side took time asking members of the jury pool whether they could render a fair verdict against Vice President Dick Cheney’s former aide. In the Manafort proceedings, Ellis asked the questions himself, and throughout the trial he has limited references to subjects that could lead jurors and lawyers down a rabbit hole—namely, references to Trump or Russia, which are unrelated to the specific charges of tax evasion.
The Eastern District’s reputation is such that many law firms in D.C. and Virginia advertise their experience trying cases in the “rocket docket.” “It’s difficult if you’re not used to it,” Carr told me.
Deadlines are strict, and cases often proceed from complaint to trial months faster than they would in other jurisdictions. In criminal cases, Zwerling said, “what would be a three-to-five-day trial in the Eastern District of Virginia could be a month-or-two-long trial in another jurisdiction.” He cited one infamous example from the 1980s, when the fraud trial of the activist and frequent presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche dragged on so long in a federal court in Boston that after several months of testimony, jurors quit and the judge had to declare a mistrial. The government retried LaRouche and his associates in the Eastern District of Virginia. A jury convicted him in a matter of weeks. One lawyer who has tried cases there told me there’s a joke among attorneys that if you ask a judge for a continuance—a delay—in a trial, “you better be dead. And bring a death certificate.”
The advantages of an expeditious court are obvious—there’s a reason, after all, that the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution specifically provides for the right to a “speedy” trial. Faster resolution of a case can cut down on legal fees, allowing more defendants to hire their own attorneys. In some civil cases, Carr said, the intense workload associated with the Eastern District’s tight timeline can prompt more out-of-court settlements. “It encourages people to try to resolve their disputes, which probably is part of the reason behind it from the judges’ perspective,” he said.
In criminal trials, the advantage usually goes to the government’s prosecution because the defense has less time to prepare. But Zwerling said that might not be true in Manafort’s case, in which Ellis has been particularly hard on Mueller’s team. “I think it has affected the government’s case, to some extent,” Zwerling said.
The government seems to agree. According to Talking Points Memo, prosecutors filed a motion asking Ellis to address the jury after he admonished Mueller’s team over a witness it planned to call. Ellis did so on Thursday, telling the jurors to “put aside any criticism” he made of the government lawyers, lest it prejudice jurors against their case.
“I’m not patient,” the judge said at another point. It’s an apt description—not only of the judge himself, but of the court on which he sits. Zwerling reminded me that outside the main entrance to the Albert V. Bryan Courthouse—one of four in the Eastern District—there’s a statue of Lady Justice. She is not standing, but in a full run. And engraved on the pedestal beneath is the court’s unofficial motto: “Justice delayed, justice denied.”