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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Gore's Legal Challenge Gets Underway

Law: Facing Dec. 12 deadline, judge holds hearing soon after contest to certification is filed. GOP attorneys complain case is moving a little too fast.

November 28, 2000|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Vice President Al Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, filed a formal legal challenge Monday to the official statewide certification of the presidential campaign in Florida, declaring themselves the rightful heirs to the state's 25 electoral votes and asking a judge to "determine the full, fair and accurate results of the election."

Less than four hours later, their lawsuit without any historic or political precedent was underway in a third-floor Tallahassee courtroom, where a judge and some two dozen lawyers found themselves racing a deadline of less than three weeks to decide whether the declared winner in Florida--Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas--was the wrong man.

Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls, clearly mindful of the clock ticking toward Dec. 12 for the confirmation of Florida electors, quickly began working his way through the complex lawsuit and some nine separate legal motions filed by the Gore team.

The judge instructed the attorneys for Bush to respond with their formal defense within the next several days, and for both sides this week to trade lists of proposed witnesses and evidence that they would call to his courtroom once the trial formally convenes.

The Democrats' attorneys, eager to expedite the case, said they could provide their lists on witnesses and experts on voting machines as early as today.

But Republican lawyers complained that the case was moving a bit too fast, noting that they learned the lawsuit had been filed only 90 minutes before they were called into Sauls' courtroom for the scheduling hearing.

Several of the GOP lawyers said they had not even had enough time to consult with their clients.

But David Boies, one of the lead Gore lawyers, said both sides want to see the legal contest play out if it will finally bring an end to a dispute that is growing increasingly bitter with each day.

Preparations Ordered for Transfer of Ballots

"I don't think anybody is prepared to see this process simply expire because we did not get the work done in time," Boies said. "I think both sides are making a genuine effort here to get this matter resolved."

Sauls also asked for officials at canvassing boards in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Nassau counties to begin preparing to transfer tens of thousands of ballots to Tallahassee.

Once they arrive, he may appoint a special master to serve as his assistant in reexamining the boxloads of contested ballots that Gore says he needs counted to win the election. Just what kind of inspection the master would conduct has not been spelled out.

If it becomes too cumbersome to bring the ballots here, however, then Sauls may have the review carried out in the canvassing board offices in South Florida, where the inspection would be closely watched by even more teams of lawyers and GOP and Democratic political monitors.

But more important, perhaps, the balding, folksy jurist sought to set a somewhat calm and lighthearted tone in the courtroom in the midst of so many somber lawyers aware that they are making legal and political history.

Worried that his special master may get sore-eyed reviewing so many ballots, Sauls joked, "Do you have a magnifying glass here?"

When there were too many lawyers and too few seats, the judge had an extra chair brought out for W. Dexter Douglass, another of the lead Gore attorneys. "Don't be tired now," he told the lawyer.

The lawsuit is unique in that it comes after the fact--one day after Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified the statewide election totals and declared Bush the winner by a mere 537 votes.

While Gore and his supporters earlier were protesting the vote counts and had successfully gotten recounts in some selected South Florida counties that are heavily Democratic, his task now is much more challenging.

He must convince Sauls, and if he loses there, the Florida Supreme Court, that additional votes should be counted, others recounted, and many of them included in the final certification.

Douglas Hattaway, a chief Gore spokesman, said outside the courtroom that if they succeed, they will pick up the votes necessary to win that they believe are already out there.

"The academic point to make is that we're ahead right now," he said.

Barry Richard, a Tallahassee lawyer representing the Bush team, acknowledged in court that time is of the essence for the Gore lawyers, and he pledged not to purposely try to slow down the process.

He also promised to vigorously defend the right of Bush to call himself president-elect.

Lawyer Underscores Importance of Case

At one point, standing before Sauls, Richard gazed across the courtroom at the phalanx of lawyers, all but one in dark business suits and many of them gray-haired like himself.

"This is certainly, most of us agree, the most important case we've ever been engaged in," he said.

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