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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Broward Judge Feeling Heat of Political Machine

Florida: Siding with the GOP, Robert Lee appeared to be nonpartisan. Then the Democrat reversed himself.

November 15, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — At first, Robert W. Lee looked like he had risen above the partisan fray.

The young, openly gay Democratic county judge had earned the ambiguous honor of being the first local official in Florida to break party lines by casting the deciding vote against a hand recount requested by Democrats in Broward County.

"I'm not a politician, I'm a judge, and if people out there don't like my decision, well, fine," Lee said.

He spoke late Monday night, after he had voted against the Democratic request--and after sheriff's deputies had whisked him out the back door of the meeting.

But as has happened day after day in this maddeningly endless presidential election chaos, a day later Lee suddenly changed course.

At a hastily called meeting Tuesday, the 40-year-old judge said he now wanted to reconsider his Monday night vote against the recount. Democrat loyalists grinned. Republicans grimaced.

And Lee's decision of indecision triggered two walls of lawyers in double-breasted suits to rise up out of their seats in his courtroom and rush out to wrangle over the fine print of election law somewhere else.

The impact of Lee's change of heart is unclear. He led the three-member Broward Canvassing Board, which met in his courtroom, in asking the state Supreme Court for guidance concerning what necessitates a hand recount. It wasn't quite the victory Democrats wanted Monday, but it kept their hopes alive for a full hand recount of the county.

Lee's ultimate position could mean the difference of several hundred votes for Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore in an election so close that nobody seems to know the exact spread. The sample hand count of three Broward precincts awarded Gore a net gain of four votes. Broward went nearly 3 to 1 for Gore among 587,928 ballots.

The messy predicament Lee is in illuminates the enormous responsibility this election snafu has dropped in the hands of ordinary people, in this case a pleasant-mannered county judge who usually handles DUIs and divorces. Lee is supposed to be the tie-breaker between the Democratic county commissioner and the Republican elections supervisor who sit on the Broward County canvassing board. He is supposed to be the neutral, apolitical voice, the one free from political pressure.

But is that ever possible? Lee, for instance, interviewed last year with representatives of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush for a promotion to the Broward Circuit Court. He is a registered Democrat but in Florida, judges run as nonpartisan candidates. He ended up not getting the job and says his election decisions have nothing to do with future ambitions.

Others wonder.

Robin Rorapaugh, an aide to Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), has been watching Lee closely during the recount controversy. Lee voted with the Republican member of the canvassing board 12 times, Rorapaugh said.

"You don't know with this guy," she said. "He has a reputation as a fair judge, but his votes haven't helped us."

When Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Lee to the bench in 1997, Democratic bigwigs, gay rights activists and Latinos (Lee's mother is of Mexican descent), celebrated the choice. Lee was the first openly gay judge in Broward County. He had been president of the Hispanic Bar Assn. And he had a reputation as a sharp lawyer, having worked at two litigation firms in Fort Lauderdale.

"He's a fair, decent judge; an honorable guy," said Lawrence J. Smith, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and former Democratic congressman. "We just don't agree with him about the hand count."

Lee caught the limelight twice before on the bench, first for overseeing the trial of a Miami judge arrested for allegedly trying to pick up a prostitute and later for presiding over the case of several people arrested at a swingers' club.

Maybe that's why he seemed dismissive of all the attention he has been getting since the Florida recount began last week.

"I'm a pretty together person," Lee said. "I don't get caught up in this type of stuff."

But on Monday night, Lee was completely caught up, whether it was his style or not. In a room packed with suits, protesters and stressed-out political operatives who were working with just three hours of sleep, he essentially had to decide whether Broward County would crack open its ballot boxes and begin one of the most ambitious hand recounts ever done.

The issues came down to this: The Democrats, including Broward County Commissioner Suzanne Gunzburger, said that there had been enough discrepancies found in the three precincts to warrant a hand recount of the entire county. The Republicans--with an ally on the canvassing board, Broward County Supervisor of Elections Jane Carroll--sharply disagreed. Their lawyers argued that the four votes Gore gained in a sample hand recount weren't sufficient evidence of widespread machine error and did not justify a recount countywide.

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