The lawyers join in rush to be part of the circus

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The Independent US

Shades of the O J Simpson soap opera are everywhere in Florida, as a thickening legal fog envelops the presidential election cliffhanger. Although Johnnie Cochran, F Lee Bailey and Barry Scheck are not in town, yet, and Judge Lance Ito is not on the bench, other circumstances are looking more familiar by the hour.

Shades of the O J Simpson soap opera are everywhere in Florida, as a thickening legal fog envelops the presidential election cliffhanger. Although Johnnie Cochran, F Lee Bailey and Barry Scheck are not in town, yet, and Judge Lance Ito is not on the bench, other circumstances are looking more familiar by the hour.

One of the lawyers associated with the Simpson case is Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and America's top civil liberties attorney. Mr Dershowitz, who is attracted to a microphone as a wasp is to a sweet drink, is in Palm Beach helping with the civil suits filed over the county's infamous "butterfly ballot".

Cameras might be barred from federal courts, including the one in Miami where Judge Donald Middlebrooks ruled against a Republican lawsuit attempting to ban manual recounts. But they will be in Florida's state Supreme Court, which was to hear the certification deadline appeal - leading armchair lawyers to salivate at the prospect of another live, O J-style, television extravaganza. And, by co-incidence, O J himself now lives in Florida.

America's propensity to litigate and its love-hate relationship with lawyers was noted as long ago as the 1830s by Alexis de Tocqueville. The tendency also produced Dan Quayle's only good line. America "has 5 per cent of the world's population, but 70 per cent of its lawyers", said the hapless former vice-president who pressed in vain for a simplification of tort laws.

Many of them are now coming to the Sunshine State. Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School, was in Tallahassee helping the Democrats in their fight against yesterday's 5pm certification deadline.

Mr Cochran's mantra about the bloody glove in the Los Angeles courtroom five years ago was: "If it does not fit, you must acquit." Odds are being taken on which constitutional lawyer will be first to say: "If there's a doubt, you must recount."

Judges were running for cover yesterday. Three recused themselves from involvement in the storm over the suspended recount in Palm Beach County, prompting one bewildered television reporter to observe: "We're running through judges pretty quickly in these parts." But of lawyers, there is no shortage.

Small wonder that both parties have set up committees to raise funds to pay for a legal battle, whose length and expensive no one can predict. Democrats and Republicans are each said to have sent 100 lawyers to Florida. Assuming an average billing rate of $300 (£200) an hour and a 12-hour day, the legal meter would run at over $350,000 a day for each party - plus expenses.

Some of the legal superstars in attendance can command far higher rates. Helping the Democrats in Tallahassee is David Boies, who led the Justice Department's anti-trust case against Microsoft and has been voted "Lawyer of the Year" by his peers.

For anyone with a sense of postwar American history, this confluence of politics and the law should be no surprise. Liberals used the courts to consolidate the civil rights legislative achievements of the 1950s. More recently, conservatives have used the law to fight their battles against President Bill Clinton. Tobacco, abortion and gun control are some of the issues that a deadlocked political system has tacitly permitted the courts to deal with. In that sense, a presidential election decided in the courts is the natural climax of a long existing process.

Some would argue, to paraphrase Churchill on democracy, that while lawyers may be regrettable, the alternatives are worse. "Political problems need to be resolved in the political arena," said Abner Mikva, a former appeals court judge and White House Counsel under Mr Clinton. "But we have to consider the alternatives. The only other place this could wind up is on the streets."

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