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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

County Judge Walked Fine Line

Law: Terry P. Lewis was sorely tested by the Gore, Bush legal minds, and his ruling on the Florida recount deadline left both sides applauding.

November 15, 2000|MICHAEL FINNEGAN and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It was a promised duel that ended up an exchange of gloved slaps, a frosty face-off between some of the wiliest legal minds in America that never quite came off--deflected in a carefully worded ruling by a county judge who writes mysteries in his spare time.

For a singular day, the Florida capital rivaled Washington's K Street lobbyist corridor as a parade ground for legal talent.

Two former secretaries of State, pugnacious Republican James A. Baker III and deliberative Democrat Warren Christopher, took center stage as the public faces for two candidates with competing claims on the presidency.

Christopher was joined by David Boies, the gifted litigator who skewered software billionaire Bill Gates during the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust suit against Microsoft Corp. Baker had assembled a team that included veteran counsel Theodore B. Olson, a Republican stalwart who worked as a Justice Department lawyer for President Reagan.

Yet they all played second fiddle Tuesday to Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry P. Lewis, whose legal ruling upheld the 5 p.m. vote recount deadline sought by the Republican candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush--but also held out hope for the manual tallies pressed by his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore.

While agreeing with Florida officials that a deadline imposed by Secretary of State Katherine Harris could not be overturned, Lewis ruled that there was nothing in state law to prevent her from considering late vote recounts. Ignoring those returns even if they come in after the deadline, Lewis said, "is not the exercise of discretion. It is the abdication of that discretion."

Lewis' decision left both sides insisting their arguments had been bolstered--just the sort of exquisitely parsed reasoning, several veteran Tallahassee attorneys said, that is the mark of his rulings.

The pressure of deciding a case that may tip the balance of the presidency "won't bother Terry one bit," said Bill Corry, a longtime friend and former law partner. "He'll lay down and go to sleep just as easily tonight as any other night."

Lewis, who earned his bachelor's and law degrees at Florida State University and was a judicial appointee of the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, drives a beat-up brown pickup with tennis gear stowed in back. He is known in the state capital for his mystery novel, "Conflict of Interest," which still sells at the Black Cat newsstand down from the courthouse on Monroe Street.

"He's the kind of judge both sides like--because they know he's going to be objective," Corry said.

But judging by the caliber of the legal teams that descended on Tallahassee--and other parts of Florida--this week, Lewis was sorely tested.

Republicans had the home court advantage, using Florida government attorneys working for Harris, who campaigned for Bush earlier this year.

Led by Baker, the GOP's own team of imported suits took over a suite of offices inside the state Republican Party headquarters in Tallahassee, sharing telephones and computers and subsisting on bagels and barbecue sandwiches, said Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker.

Baker was joined by Olson, a Washington lawyer who represented former LAPD officer Stacey Koon after his federal conviction in the beating of Rodney G. King and is a close friend of former independent counsel Kenneth A. Starr. Olson took Bush's side Monday in Miami before a federal judge who upheld the legality of manual recounts. They were joined by Benjamin Ginsburg, a former counsel for the Republican National Committee, and Barry Richard, a Tallahassee attorney who argued the Texas governor's case before Lewis in a Monday hearing.

"I'm sure it's not the kind of office atmosphere most of these attorneys are used to," Tucker said.

It was Baker who set the GOP's tone, projecting a tough, unyielding persona as he demanded Gore call off attempts to mount vote recounts by hand in four Florida counties. "In sum," Baker said at one point, "the Gore campaign has been unwilling to accept any finality--after the vote, after the recount, after the manual recount tests in selective favorable counties, or even after larger selective manual recounts within the time prescribed by Florida statute."

Baker urged the vice president to accept a Bush suggestion that both sides accept whatever vote count stood at the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline. But minutes after Lewis' written opinion was delivered at noon, Christopher simply ignored Baker's proposal--delivering his own assessment of the case.

"We're pleased by the decision of the circuit court that the secretary of State was wrong," he said. His face betrayed not a trace of pleasure.

Christopher plotted strategy over lunch with W. Dexter Douglass, the courtly Southern lawyer who argued Gore's case Monday before Lewis.

Much of the Gore team's work was conducted in law offices near the capital owned by Mitchell Berger, a lawyer active in Gore's Florida campaign.

Boies joined Christopher's team Monday night, summoned to head up Gore's appeal of Harris' deadline in the Florida appeals court--a move that Gore drew back from after lawyers pored over Lewis' ruling.

Boies was part of a team that included Harvard constitutional law expert Laurence Tribe, who argued Gore's case in federal court Monday, and Kendall Coffey, a former Florida federal prosecutor who represented Elian Gonzales' American cousins last summer in their attempts to keep the boy in the U.S.

Once the Gore team announced its decision to step back from the brink and not appeal Lewis' split decision, Boies said he was hopeful that all the imported lawyers still in Tallahassee would soon be on their way out of town.

"We're very hopeful," he said, "this is now on track and the lawyers can go home and the voters can get their votes counted."

*

Finnegan reported from Tallahassee and Braun from West Palm Beach.

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