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Searching for legitimacy amid chaos

By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 2000


You could not have fit another lawyer into courtroom 3C of the Leon County Courthouse with the shoehorn for a pair of men's cordovan dress shoes.

The courtroom could not hold one more reporter, not even with the shove of a long boom microphone.

As you watched, you could not avoid the questions: When is enough picking at the electoral process enough? If we don't stop soon, won't whoever is elected president face half a nation that believes he has no legitimate right to be president?

Legitimacy. It's the new L-word in politics.

How can you have legitimacy when the state elections canvassing board is composed essentially of three Republicans: Secretary of State Katherine Harris, her handpicked elections division director, Clay Roberts, and Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, a Democrat who stumped for George Bush?

How can you have legitimacy when the Democrats, in pushing for recounts in Volusia and Palm Beach counties -- and before they're through, Dade and Broward -- want to give voters in those places special treatment the rest of us in Florida have been denied?

Surely it was like this when the language of the Declaration of Independence was cobbled together.

I say so to reassure myself about the shape democracy is in.

Surely then, men we now call great used the word fairness only when it benefited their point of view.

Surely then, confusion was more the rule than the exception.

The confusion was so great Monday that Al Gore's lawyer -- and Tallahassee's most Southern of Southern gentlemen, Dexter Douglass -- thought the hearing was to be held today, not Monday.

The confusion was so great that lawyers for both parties fought for a while over exhibits to be introduced that neither side had looked at.

The greatest confusion, though, was over the election law. In its great wisdom, the Legislature mucked it up real good.

There is a dispute over whether the state canvassing board can ignore the results of counties that don't have their figures in by 5 p.m. today -- like Democrat-leaning Palm Beach and Volusia, where the recounts are unfinished.

One provision of the law says the board shall disregard counties that miss the deadline. This is the provision the Bush people want enforced, and the Gore people don't.

The very next provision of the law goes all wishy-washy, and states the board may disregard the count from the counties that miss the deadline.

The decision is up to Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, a judge 95 percent of Florida, and all of the rest of America, has never heard of -- but also a man so remarkable he has one mystery novel, successfully published, to his credit.

His inventive powers are being called upon again, also his powers of endurance.

Judge Lewis interrupted a trial of a mother-daughter dispute over the transfer of some property to hear this case that might decide the fate of the nation.

Might, I say, because Lewis' ruling -- which he was going to write Monday night and issue this morning before he returns to the mother-daughter spat -- surely will be appealed by whoever loses to the District Court of Appeal. And whoever loses there surely will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The Republicans and Democrats really don't know when to quit.

Yet the solution is so simple, only a lawyer could miss it.

The candidates should flip a coin. Heads, Gore wins Florida. Tails, Bush wins.

That's the way to end this circus. Ordinary voters -- remember us? -- could understand this decision. Accept it. Even call it legitimate.

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