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'Playing lawyer,' Feeney follows high court drama

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


With a chair pulled close to his television, House Speaker Tom Feeney watched CNN and took notes on white and yellow legal pads Monday as arguments from the U.S. Supreme Court continued on.

"I'm playing lawyer," Feeney said Monday as he watched from his fourth-floor office in the state Capitol.

Feeney actually is a lawyer, but he has spent a lot of time listening to other lawyers and law professors as legislators moved toward a special session to approve a slate of electors to ensure the presidency for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

The 42-year-old Republican House speaker is one of the fiercest supporters of the Legislature's right to name the electors. He focused closely as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor talked about the power of state legislatures.

"Does that not mean that the court has to, in interpreting a legislative act, give special deference to the legislature's choices insofar as a presidential election is concerned?" O'Connor asked as she grilled David Boies, attorney for Vice President Al Gore. "I did not find a response to this court's question. I find that troublesome."

House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, Rep. William F. Andrews, R-Delray Beach, former Rep. John Renke of New Port Richey and House General Counsel Tom Tedcastle watched quietly behind the speaker.

O'Connor noted that the Florida Supreme Court added votes to Gore's total despite the fact that the Florida court's original opinion approving that vote has been set aside by the nation's highest court.

"I just didn't know how that worked," O'Connor remarked.

That brought a thumbs-up from Fasano and smiles all around the room.

When the court started discussing the difficulty in interpreting an individual voter's intent, Feeney began talking to the television.

"Which is why we don't allow manual recounts except when there has been a machine failure," he quipped.

And when the justices started talking about chads, Fasano noted: "Can you believe the Supreme Court is talking about dimpled and hanging chads?"

That's when an obviously exasperated O'Connor asked: "Why isn't the standard the one that voters are instructed to follow, for goodness sake?"

Another smile went around the room.

"I was especially pleased with Justice Kennedy's questions," said Feeney as the courtroom drama ended.

Will it affect the Florida Legislature's plans?

"Only if they act quickly," said Feeney.

Today Feeney's House is scheduled to begin debate on a controversial resolution that would put the legislature's stamp of approval on the 25 GOP electors pledged to Bush.

"I was listening carefully for any clue that we weren't in the proper place, and I didn't hear it," Feeney said. "On the other hand they didn't question what we are doing in court. So we didn't really get any guidance one way or another."

Since the court didn't say the Legislature can't act, Feeney is inclined to move ahead -- slowly.

"We go ahead if there is no final determination of controversies and contests," Feeney said. "I'd prefer that the U.S. Supreme Court make its decision so we don't have to go ahead."

If he knew there was a decision coming at 10 a.m. today, Feeney said he would delay the start of debate on the House floor until he could review the decision and determine whether legislators still need to act.

"We are prepared to slow down or stop at any point," Feeney said.

Over in the Senate, President John McKay seemed oblivious to the storm going on around him.

"If there is a storm, I must be in the eye," the Bradenton Republican joked.

He spent his day meeting with several senators, catching the tail end of the U.S. Supreme Court arguments and reading legal briefs filed by various lawyers with an opinion on what the Legislature should do.

McKay has been noticeably reluctant to take the Senate into the uncharted waters of deciding a presidential election and prevailed on the House to move slowly when they were ready to go into session last week.

McKay refused to speculate on what the Legislature will do, but plans to take the issue to the floor of the Senate on Wednesday.

"We will be prepared to act," McKay said. "If we have to act, we will, if we don't, we won't."

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