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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

'Straight-Shooter' to Preside Over Florida Case

Court: N. Sanders Sauls has a reputation for being a fair judge, although he is a bit of a maverick. It is the decision of a lifetime for the Panhandle native.

November 28, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Thorough. Fair. Mainstream. Middle of the road.

Those are the labels that lawyers around here use to describe N. Sanders Sauls, the Leon County Circuit Court judge named Monday to preside over the crucial contest phase of Florida's disputed presidential election.

But Sauls, 59, is also something of a maverick--a cigar-chewing, bird-hunting, you-don't-like-it-well-too-bad type jurist--born and bred in the Florida Panhandle and known for his old-school ways.

Once, during a murder trial, he excused the courtroom and took the jury on a "field trip" to the crime scene without telling anybody.

Another time, he crossed swords with the Florida Supreme Court over the administrative appointment of a friend of one of his hunting buddies. After the flap, he resigned from his position as chief judge of the 2nd Judicial Circuit--although he stayed on as a trial judge. Florida Supreme Court Justice Major B. Harding lambasted Sauls for "continuing disruption in the administration of justice."

Sauls' politics aren't crystal clear. He was known as a reliable Democrat until he switched to the Republican Party shortly before former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez appointed him to the state bench in 1989. Since then, he's run for reelection twice as a nonpartisan candidate, as is the rule in Florida.

"He's a straight-shooter who has a reputation as a fair judge," said Florida Bar Assn. President Herman Russomanno.

In this unprecedented contest phase of a presidential election, Sauls will hear Al Gore's attorneys argue that George W. Bush is not the rightful winner of the Florida election--even though he leads by 537 certified votes. There is no jury, no panel of experts. As presiding judge, Sauls will be the one to lay down rules for the contest hearings, examine evidence and listen to witnesses. He was chosen randomly for the job among the four or five other eligible judges in Leon County, where the Florida Division of Elections is based.

Although Sauls hopes to reach a decision by the end of next week, he probably will not be the last one to hear the case. His decision is expected to be appealed straight to the Florida Supreme Court by the losing side. The U.S. Supreme Court, which has set a hearing on election issues for Friday, also may get involved.

Like other Florida officials who have been sucked into the high-stakes election chaos fray, Sauls has had little to prepare him for what lies ahead. His cases are usually pretty small potatoes--recent highlights include a bar shooting, a couple counts of Medicaid fraud and a $2,601.20 auto negligence judgment. But several lawyers, including those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, credit Sauls with being a quick study and a responsible jurist.

Rick Johnson, a Tallahassee civil rights attorney, recalled one sexual harassment case in which Sauls went to Florida State University's library at night to brush up on the latest books on sexual harassment law.

"From what I know of the guy, he'll work incredibly hard on this case," Johnson said. "He's not exactly my political orientation, but I've never seen him make a decision that seemed biased."

Sauls grew up near Tallahassee in Monticello, Fla., and was voted the "friendliest" and "most intellectual" among the 1959 class at Jefferson County High School.

He went to Florida State University as an undergraduate, and then onto the University of Florida for law school. He was a prosecutor for a year before working for a politically connected law and lobbying firm in Tallahassee. He then served as a federal bankruptcy judge for eight years. Since 1989, he has been one of the 13 judges in the 2nd Circuit who are based in Tallahassee but rotate among the courthouses of six rural northern Florida counties.

This is the case of a lifetime, his friends say, and he'll rise to it.

"This case ought to be an absolute banquet for him," said Tallahassee lawyer and friend Richard McFarlain. "Sandy eats pressure, he loves it."

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