Select audience hears questions, history in making
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 2000
It was a moment for the history books.
Inside the Florida Supreme Court, Chief Justice Charles T. Wells noted the importance of the moment and then led the questioning of some high-profile lawyers who thought they were going to get to make a speech before a live television audience.
Just as Assistant Attorney General Paul F. Hancock started to tell the justices how cherished the right to vote is, Wells interrupted.
Indeed, all seven justices peppered lawyers for both sides with question after question.
Could the court order all Florida votes recounted? they asked. What did legislators mean when they wrote a law that says election returns must be reported seven days after an election? Is Florida in danger of losing its electoral votes if this dispute drags on too long?
You could hear a pin drop in the crowded courtroom benches when the justices' tough questions halted the lawyers briefly.
Those inside were oblivious to a rowdy crowd outside as the lawyers for Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush pressed for a decision that could determine who becomes the next president.
Twenty-eight reporters, 14 state legislators and a handful of others got inside the courtroom to hear arguments likely to determine who will become the next president of the United States.
Seated appropriately on the left side of the courtroom were former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and a stable of lawyers fighting to give the election to Gore.
On the right side of the courtroom sat former Secretary of State James Baker and a group of lawyers who are fighting for Bush.
Christopher and Baker have been in Tallahassee for almost two weeks working with an ever-growing number of lawyers wrangling over the way Florida counted its votes. Surely, no issue of state could have been quite as hard to resolve.
Just getting inside the courtroom took effort for all. The court limited to two the lawyers who could accompany each party to court, limited the number of reporters who could attend and required the few members of the public who got in to stand in line for several hours.
A number of those who got inside paid college students to stand in line all morning. Lobbyist Ron Book said he paid $100 to a student to hold his place. Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas would only say, "I got here."
Some who watched the line said a group of college students who were first in line early Monday morning gradually turned into men in suits who went into the courtroom.
Missing from the scene were Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who issued conflicting decisions on Florida election laws that the court is now being asked to interpret.
Harris was represented by Clay Roberts, a 35-year-old West Point graduate who serves as the director of her Division of Elections.
Just down from Roberts was Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, who is serving with Roberts and Harris as the state's election canvassing board. That board will certify the results of the Nov. 7 election.
Crawford, the only member of the canvassing board who will talk about it, has become something of a celebrity, doing television interviews outside the Capitol where the world's news media have camped.
More than 50 lawyers have signed the pleadings filed with the court, but only eight were allowed to speak. Fifteen other lawyers lined a bench across the courtroom in front of spectators.
Two of the lawyers inside the court were there to make something of a statement for the justices, sort of putting a hometown stamp of approval on two of the players: Dexter Douglass, who served as general counsel for former Gov. Lawton Chiles, introduced David Boies, the New York lawyer who made the principal argument for Gore. Thomas Barkdull, a former district court judge who has served on the state's constitutional revision commissions, introduced Assistant Attorney General Paul F. Hancock, a former federal prosecutor who now works for Attorney General Butterworth.
Outside the court, the crowd was divided into two very distinct groups: the AFL-CIO group chanting, "When in doubt, recount," and the Bush supporters who chanted, "No more Gore," while carrying signs that said: "Al Gore, commander in thief."
One woman brought her pet skunk, Wildflower, and a sign "Stop the recount, the whole thing stinks."
The skunk owner, Amy Converse, a Fernandina Beach resident, questioned how many recounts the state has to have. She's a Bush supporter.
The protest groups surrounded the front steps of the courthouse between the justices and a sort of tent city where television networks have established a beachhead to await the court's decision.
"I just hope they don't start fighting with each other," said Wilson Barnes, the Supreme Court marshal in charge of security.
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