Former prosecutor Gene Rossi learned to expect lectures and humiliation when he appeared before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis, who regularly ridiculed his arguments. But when Mr. Rossi returned several years ago from chemotherapy, Judge Ellis—after sternly summoning him to the bench—became tearful as he asked how Mr. Rossi was doing.
“For all his apparent seriousness and reprimanding and correcting and berating of attorneys, he has a heart of gold,” Mr. Rossi said recently.
Judge Ellis, who has served on the bench for more than 30 years, is soon to appear under a far brighter spotlight: He will oversee the July criminal trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort on charges of tax and bank fraud. Lawyers expect the judge to be a colorful presence, lecturing both sides, spinning tales that go far beyond the issues at hand, but ultimately issuing narrow rulings likely to withstand appeals.
The July trial, the first in special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation, could be pivotal to Mr. Mueller’s efforts, either heightening pressure on Mr. Manafort to cooperate if he is found guilty or serving as a major setback if he is acquitted.
The stakes are also high because this case will set the stage for a second trial Mr. Manafort faces in Washington, D.C., where the special counsel’s office has charged him with failing to register his foreign lobbying work and conspiring to launder money. Mr. Manafort has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
Judge Ellis has already made waves in the Manafort case. At a May 4 pretrial hearing, he questioned Michael Dreeben, a lawyer from the special counsel’s office, on why prosecutors had charged Mr. Manafort with crimes related to his private business, rather than offenses dealing with the special counsel’s mandate of investigating Russian electoral interference.
What the prosecutors “really care about,” Judge Ellis declared, is what information Mr. Manafort could provide “that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment or whatever.”
Mr. Trump and his lawyers seized on those remarks. Hours later, citing an article in The Wall Street Journal, the president told a National Rifle Association meeting, “Just when I’m walking on the stage, a highly respected judge in Virginia made statements,” repeating Mr. Ellis’s comments. Judge Ellis “is really something very special, I hear, from many standpoints,” Mr. Trump said.
Days later, Mr. Trump tweeted that Mr. Mueller’s investigators “are starting to find out that there is a Court System in place that actually protects people from injustice.” Critics, however, said the judge’s comments went far outside his purview.
Judge Ellis’s chambers declined a request for an interview.
Blunt monologues are a habit with the judge, though they usually receive less scrutiny. Lawyers say Judge Ellis, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, is known to rebuke attorneys who appear unprepared or have typos in their filings, or who call him “you” rather than “the court” or ”your honor.”
“Many times he makes remarks from the bench, but you cannot take it to heart as to that is the correct reading of him and is the way in which he is thinking,” said Michael Rodriquez, who worked as a court reporter in Judge Ellis’s courtroom for 23 years. “You might think that he is very hard on you, [but] next thing you know, he ended up ruling on your motion in your favor.”
Judge Ellis often expounds at length in court about his own younger days.
One recent case before him involved a defendant who had violated the terms of his parole.
“You have to make up your mind whether you are an honest, law-abiding person or not,” Judge Ellis lectured. He then recounted—at length—his own story of adversity, describing how he had been called an ethnic slur because he could speak Spanish when he moved as a child from Latin America to a Chicago suburb and how he had run away from home.
He then sentenced the defendant to an additional 60 days in prison.
That same day, in granting a two-week delay in an espionage trial, the judge relayed the story of a former colleague who had a heart attack on his way to a court hearing, days before the start of a trial. That judge refused to grant a delay, which gave a then-young Mr. Ellis a larger role on the trial team.
Before the recent Manafort hearing, Judge Ellis briefly held a hearing on a criminal case against a woman who allegedly consumed four glasses of white wine in 90 minutes on aJetBlue flight and then kicked a flight attendant.
A lawyer for the woman asked for a delay in part because one of her witnesses, a passenger on the flight, was the only available neonatologist in the intensive care unit at his New York hospital that week. “They’ll have to make other arrangements,” Judge Ellis said. “The court doesn’t sit for the convenience of physicians.”
For all his colorful style, Judge Ellis’s rulings have a history of holding up. In more than three decades on the bench, he has been reversed by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals 8.3% of the time, compared with an average reversal rate for judges in the district of 14.3%, according to an analysis of Bloomberg Law data by researchers at the University of Virginia.
After graduating from Princeton University in 1961, Judge Ellis served in the Navy and then attended Harvard Law School. He worked in private practice until he was nominated to the court in 1987.
He has overseen several high-profile cases, including the 2002 charges against John Walker Lindh, the American captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan, who received a 20-year-prison term.
“Life,” he told Mr. Lindh, “is making choices and living with the consequences.”
Write to Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com