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 surreal spectacle of the Manafort trial
“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.