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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Hand Recount Judge Is Lauded for Independence

Law: Federal jurist Donald Middlebrooks will rule on a crucial Florida election issue. He is a Clinton appointee who has a reputation for evenhandedness.

November 12, 2000|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The federal judge who will decide whether to stop the hand recounts of disputed presidential ballots in Florida was appointed by President Clinton but drew effusive bipartisan praise three years ago from the state's two U.S. senators.

The record on U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks, as well as interviews with partners at his former South Florida law firm, indicates that the politically sensitive case--a Republican lawsuit seeking to block Democrat-requested recounts--is in the hands of a jurist with a reputation for independence and an even hand.

"I'm a Democrat, but I supported George [W.] Bush. And I would be very comfortable in having Don Middlebrooks in terms of fairness," said Joseph P. Klock Jr., chairman and managing partner of the Miami-based law firm Steel, Hector & Davis, where the judge previously was a senior partner.

"Don's an excellent, excellent judge. . . . He has excellent control over a courtroom. Any personal biases he has he will never let influence any judicial decision."

Another former law partner who vouched for Middlebrooks, John W. Little III, said: "I feel confident in his intellectual integrity and his personal integrity." Little too described himself as a Bush supporter.

In his Miami courtroom Monday, Middlebrooks is scheduled to hear the Bush campaign's request for an injunction to block the manual counting that got underway Saturday in Palm Beach County and was planned elsewhere in Florida. Democrats suggest that many votes cast for Vice President Al Gore were not tallied during the first, machine-run count, or in the recount conducted after Tuesday's election.

Any additional votes could prove decisive in tipping Florida's 25 electoral votes--and the election--to Gore. The Texas governor is clinging to a slender lead in Florida, with some overseas ballots still uncounted.

In an election of many firsts, how Middlebrooks handles this unusual case is likely to set a precedent. Historically, the federal judiciary has been reluctant to interfere in the purely political workings of the executive and legislative branches.

One thing the judge will not lack is a strong knowledge of Florida and its politics. Middlebrooks, 53, was born in Orlando, Fla., and holds bachelor's and law (1972, with honors) degrees from the University of Florida. In one of his first jobs out of law school, Middlebrooks served as counsel in the administration of then-Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, a Democrat.

In 1977, he joined Steel, Hector, a prominent firm specializing in corporate law and litigation that in recent years has seen three of its former attorneys become federal judges. According to partner Little, a young Janet Reno also practiced with the firm before moving to the Miami-Dade County prosecutor's office on her way to becoming U.S. attorney general.

His former partners said Middlebrooks worked on 1st Amendment cases, defending media organizations from libel suits, and handled pro bono work, including death penalty cases. Klock said Middlebrooks has expertise in constitutional and administrative law and was active in children's legal issues.

Klock and Little described Middlebrooks as a Democrat with an independent streak.

In January 1997, President Clinton nominated Middlebrooks for the federal bench. The nomination sailed through the Senate.

Clearing the way for the unanimous confirmation was support from Florida's two senators, Republican Connie Mack and Democrat Bob Graham.

At the confirmation hearing, Graham called Middlebrooks "a man who brings unquestioned confidence, integrity, devotion to duty and a diversity of life experiences, which have fully prepared him for this responsibility."

Mack, at the same hearing, called Middlebrooks "a respected practitioner" with "a splendid career." Mack also praised him for working to help "those who do not enjoy easy access to the legal system, especially children."

Middlebrooks has handled some high-profile cases. In 1999, he threw out a major case alleging corruption at the Port of Miami. Middlebrooks ruled there was "substantial evidence of greed and public corruption" but that federal prosecutors had presented a flawed case.

Environmentalists have praised Middlebrooks for several rulings--including a $9-million fine he approved against Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. for pumping oily wastes into the sea and misleading investigators.

*

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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The Legal Arguments

Excerpts from Saturday's Republican requests asking U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks to halt manual recounts of some Florida ballots and bar further by-hand recounts:

"There is a keen public interest in the finality of elections. Without attention to the need for finality and certainty in elections, the election can be transformed from the culmination of election campaigns to just another phase of the candidates' efforts . . . .

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