Manhattan Alumnus and Trial Judge Discusses His Career

Ronald L. Ellis ’72, the U.S. Magistrate Judge, ruled to allow bail of $10 million at the Madoff hearing.

For those who have followed the Bernie Madoff proceedings, the name Hon. Ronald L. Ellis ’72 likely sounds familiar. The U.S. Magistrate Judge ruled to allow bail of $10 million at the Madoff hearing, which triggered a deluge of media coverage, yet something he paid little attention.

“I like to think it doesn’t affect me,” says Ellis, who wrote a meticulous 22-page opinion on why he decided not to revoke bail for Madoff. “I try in all cases to apply the law as it is written.”

The Madoff bail hearing is just one of many that Ellis hears on a regular basis. He has presided over other high-profile hearings, including ones for John Gotti and alleged terrorism suspects, such as Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist charged with attempting to kill American soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan.

As a trial-level judge in the federal system, Ellis handles aspects of both civil and criminal cases, such as bail and detention hearings, arrest and search warrants, settlements, and discovery disputes.

“The biggest aspect of it involves the parties preparing for trial,” Ellis says. “For these disputes, you mediate and determine the appropriate outcome.”

Before his appointment in 1993 as magistrate judge for the Southern District of New York, Ellis spent 17 years as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). His association with LDF began as an internship while at New York University School of Law.

As a lawyer for LDF, he worked on federal cases at the trial level. He focused on employment discrimination class action suits from around the country, as well as cases in voting rights, health care, housing, education and environmental justice. From 1984-90, he served as director of the Fund’s national litigation program in fair employment, followed by three years as the director of its poverty and justice program, prior to his judicial appointment. 

“You had the opportunity to help people,” says Ellis, referring to what he liked most about his work at LDF. “What we did with these cases was demonstrate that people had been victims of discrimination … We changed the structure of a number of companies so that they allowed those individuals to get better jobs.”

For Ellis, employment discrimination hit especially close to home. His father moved the family north from Louisiana to find better job opportunities.

“My father used to be in that situation,” Ellis says. “As it said on my birth certificate, he was a ‘common laborer.’ I met a lot of people who were in my father’s position who couldn’t move up and that resonated for me.”

It is this sensitivity and steadfast belief in the fairness of the court system that has guided Ellis’ career.

“It’s important that people have access to the courts,” he says. “Many of the people I have met were happy to make their case whether or not they won or lost.”

He traces his ability to reason efficiently to his time as a student studying chemical engineering at Manhattan College.

“Engineering allows you to think logically,” Ellis says. “That has been very helpful.”

His interest in law began during his junior year at Manhattan, when he took a course on American Legal History at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. His professor told him about a law school scholarship in public service at NYU. Ellis applied for and received the scholarship. He graduated with his J.D. from NYU in 1975.

In addition to his work as a judge, Ellis believes in the importance of education and has made his mark in the classroom. He is a lecturer-in-law at Columbia University and has been an adjunct professor of law at NYU, where he taught the undergraduate class Racism and American Law and the graduate class Employment Law. He also has co-authored the chapter on Achieving Race and Gender Fairness in the Courtroom in the second edition of The Judge’s Book.

Although Ellis takes making legal decisions seriously, there is a lighter, artistic side to the judge. He sings in the Brooklyn Community Chorus in Park Slope, calls himself the court’s unofficial photographer and, for the past five years, has appeared in “courthouse follies,” a satirical musical comedy staged by law personnel inside the courthouse each December. As part of the quartet that performs the “judges number,” Ellis and his colleagues act out a story about what’s going on in the courts set to funny lyrics and popular music.

Such antics show that Ellis is not afraid to poke fun at himself. Yet, at the end of the day, his priority remains to make balanced judgments.

“I like to make sure that any person who appears before me has a fair chance to present their case,” Ellis says.