The judge presiding over Paul Manafort’s case also ruled on Clinton’s role in Benghazi

Judge Merrick Garland with Judge Amy Berman Jackson.
Judge Merrick Garland with Judge Amy Berman Jackson.
Image: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s lavish, globe-trotting lifestyle came crashing down to earth on Monday in a windowless federal courtroom in downtown Washington, DC.

After turning over their passports to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Manafort and his business partner Richard Gates were released on $10 million and $5 million bail, respectively. They’ll be on house arrest and electronically monitored until their next court appearance on Nov. 2, a “status hearing” that determines when the US federal government case against them will be tried.

The charges against Gates and Manafort represent just the “opening salvo” of FBI special counselor Robert Mueller’s investigation, legal experts say. Coupled with the news that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign-policy adviser for the Trump campaign, had become a cooperating witness, the charges indicate Mueller has embarked on a wide-ranging probe that could encompass many more individuals than was earlier assumed.

Manafort, ashen-faced and thin, spoke in a voice that was barely above a whisper, while Gates seemed oddly nonplussed, appearing without a private lawyer. He might plead the Fifth Amendment, his public defender said, which protects witnesses in court from incriminating themselves

The two men face long prison sentences if found guilty. Money laundering charges alone could put Manafort in prison for 15 years, the public prosecutor noted Monday, while Gates could be locked up for 12 for the same.

A preliminary judge presided over the courtroom Monday. But most of the facts of Manafort and Gates’ case will be heard by Amy Berman Jackson, a US District Court judge since 2011 who has ruled on some of the most controversial topics in front of federal courts in recent years.

Her appointment has become a political hot potato, with Fox News writing of Jackson’s $1,000 contribution to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and left-wing outlets arguing that Fox is smearing judges.

Jackson was appointed by former president Barack Obama in 2011. But, like many federal judges she has a lengthy history that’s difficult to characterize as either “liberal” or “conservative.” In fact, in one of the most significant cases of her legal career before becoming a judge, she successfully argued that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had overstepped its bounds in investigating a public figure.

Questioning the FBI’s aggressive investigation of Manafort is expected to be a key part of his defense, his lawyer indicated in a statement on Monday. Among other tactics, the FBI raided Manafort’s home before dawn in July.

A Harvard law school graduate, Jackson was a private lawyer for 20 years, most recently with Trout, Cacheris, & Janis, a DC firm that says it specializes in complex civil cases and white collar crime. She was a key part of the firm’s defense team for Congress member William Jefferson, a Louisiana representative nicknamed “Dollar Bill,” after an FBI raid found $90,000 in his freezer. Government officials allege that money came from bribes he accepted to promote African business interests in the US. 

Jefferson was initially sentenced to 13 years in prison, but released this year, after some charges were dropped. As his attorney, Jackson argued that accepting money did not necessarily constitute an “official act,” an argument upheld later in a separate Supreme Court case that set the stage for his release. She also successfully argued that a FBI raid of his Congressional office was unconstitutional.

As a judge, Jackson’s rulings have been alternately welcomed by conservatives and liberals alike.

  • Targeting conservative groups with IRS audits
    In 2011, in one of her first cases as a federal judge, Jackson ruled that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had to turn over information that the White House demanded as it probed whether the IRS had unfairly targeted conservative groups with audits. Conservative news outlets like the Washington Times praised the judgment for forcing the Obama administration to be more transparent.
  • Misuse of campaign funds
    In 2013, she sentenced Illinois congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. to two and a half years in prison for misuse of campaign funds, and his wife Sandy Jackson to one year in prison. Public prosecutors had recommended four years, and Jackson’s decision took into account the couple’s young children. But she refused to let Jackson Jr. do his wife’s jail time. It is “not the court that put your children in this position,” the judge reportedly told Sandy Jackson.
  • Anti-trust in healthcare
    In February, Jackson spiked the $54 billion Anthem takeover of Cigna, saying the combination of the two health care giants violated anti-trust law. During a hearing about the deal, she peppered both sides with tough questions, the Wall Street Journal reported, at one point calling Anthem’s submitted evidence “insulting.”
  • Responsibility for Benghazi
    Judge Jackson dismissed a lawsuit in May of 2017 brought by the parents of Tyrone Woods and Sean Smith, two soldiers killed in the 2012 Benghazi attack. The lawsuit alleged that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server caused the death of their sons, and that Clinton defamed them after disputing their account of a meeting with her. In her decision, Jackson calls the deaths of the plaintiffs’ sons “tragic” and an “unspeakable loss,” but said they did not prove their argument.
  • Vaping regulation
    In July of this year, she dismissed a challenge (pdf) by e-cigarette manufacturers to the Food and Drug Administration’s right to regulate their products, ruling that the Tobacco Act gave the US agency authority to do so. Some legal experts questioned whether she was being unfair to the vaping industry. 

In conversations with Quartz, Jackson’s former colleagues highlighted her centrist credentials. Jackson has been a “very conscientious and very fair” judge, said Robert P. Trout, a partner with Trout, Cacheris, & Janis, the DC law firm. Of Jackson’s decisions, he said she “calls them like she sees them.”

In the Manafort case, lawyers are going to want a “judge who is fair to both sides, who will be well prepared, and who will let the lawyers try their case, and not get in the middle of it, and they have that,” Trout said. “Both sides should be happy about this draw.”