Thirty lawyers in war of words over 'chads' and voters

Florida Ballot
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The Independent US

The courtroom artist donned her magnifying goggles and calmly surveyed the scene before her. How to depict this moment of history with shades of crayon? One thing she had surely decided already - the original of this drawing was one she was going to keep.

The courtroom artist donned her magnifying goggles and calmly surveyed the scene before her. How to depict this moment of history with shades of crayon? One thing she had surely decided already - the original of this drawing was one she was going to keep.

She had at least got in. While the central courtroom of the District Court building in downtown Miami may be huge - and entirely grand with its marble-block walls, velvet-curtained windows and massive chandeliers - there were not enough seats for everyone yesterday. And no wonder, when you considered what was at stake.

And it was not just the public benches that were crammed. The penned area set aside for lawyers just before the bench of Judge Donald Middlebrooks was similarly overflowing. Their tables were a forest of polystyrene mugs and, of course, yellow legal pads, on which the arguments that might sway this presidential election had been scribbled.

While the proceedings were orderly, the scene at the courthouse was not. Crowds of journalists who had been barred entrance, lined up outside the leather-padded doors, peering through the crack where they parted for any glimpse inside. On the street, televisions teams with a forest of cameras were similarly kept in suspense.

Even those who had made it in faced agonising dilemmas when urgent business required that they step out for a few minutes - to make a phone call or relieve themselves. Once out, they were out for good. Some of America's most esteemed news gatherers had to choose between witnessing history or saving their bladders.

The side of the pen for the defendants was far more the most populated. A quick count from the front row of the gallery found 23 grave-faced gentleman in suits batting for the Democrats, whose job it was to persuade the judge that manual recounts promised in four Florida counties did not breach the US constitution.

The plaintiffs - the Republican team led by chief lawyer Ted Olson - was more modest. Their camp contained only seven lawyers and Mr Olson did all the talking in the hour given by the judge for the plaintiff's case. His pitch was simple: the notion that just a few of Florida's counties could do recounts violated the US Constitution's provisions assuring an equal right to vote for each citizen.

Team sizes presumably had no bearing on the outcome. Few legal experts had given the Republicans much hope of prevailing and they turned out to be right. Judge Middlebrooks is a Democrat, appointed by President Bill Clinton, with a reputation for protecting the rights of individuals.

The judge listened to both sides with equal attention. But even as he directed his most pointed questions to Mr Olson, how he was going to rule began to show. Wasn't it true, he wanted to know, that electronic counting methods in Florida have generally shown an error rate of 5 per cent?

Nor probably was it the star-power of the Democratic team that did it. There in the midst of their many players sat the most famous lawyer in the land, Alan Derschowitz of OJ Simpson fame, representing a group of disgruntled voters in Palm Beach County.

Derschowitz was succinct. "There is a state process available," he told the judge, referring to the provisions that allow for manual recounts under Florida law if requested by one of the parties within 72 hours of voting day itself. "It is functioning and it is functioning well, and it is not broken."

Judge Middlebrooks listened to him in silence.

Tension, as it does, occasionally gave way to muffled giggles. It happened with almost every mention of the dastardly "chads", those little square of card that are meant to pop out of a ballot card when a voter punches for a candidate, but which sometimes, as the world knows, fails to pop out.

When it was all over and Judge Middlebrooks ruled against the Republicans, they took no pains to hide their disappointment."The problem is when such unlimited discretion is given to the officials in these counties ... it's just like acting like God," said Mr Olson.

So great were stakes in this courtroom yesterday, it was not the counters who were God. It was the mild-mannered Judge Middlebrooks.

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