WASHINGTON - Down to their next-to-last legal hope, the Miami relatives of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez asked a federal appeals court yesterday to reconsider a ruling that would clear the way for the boy to return to Cuba with his father.
If the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta turns them down, the relatives would be left with only a final plea for help from the Supreme Court - a move generally expected to fail.
The appeals court indicated that it would act rapidly on the new request, directing the Justice Department and Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, to file short replies by Tuesday.
On June 1, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that the federal government has no duty to consider granting Elian political asylum - a condition for him to remain in the United States. While making clear it was uncomfortable with that outcome, the panel found that federal law leaves the asylum issue largely to the discretion of the Justice Department.
Yesterday, the Miami relatives who are seeking asylum for the boy asked the full 12-member appeals court to review the case. It would take the votes of a majority - seven - to grant review. That may be difficult because the relatives are seeking to overturn a unanimous ruling by the three-judge panel.
If the new request is denied, the ruling against an asylum hearing for the boy will go into effect seven days later. At that point, Elian and his father would be free to go back to Cuba - unless the Supreme Court stepped in.
If the full appeals court does agree to review the dispute, it could delay a resolution for several weeks at least.
In their new filing, the Miami relatives argued that the case should be reconsidered because it was of "extraordinary importance - to the United States, to the administration's foreign policy and dealings with Cuba, to the Cuban-American community, to the American citizenry more broadly, and to the Gonzalez family."
They also contended that the case raises a significant constitutional issue: whether an alien temporarily in this country has a constitutional right to be considered for asylum.
In addition, the Florida members of the family said the appeals court's panel went too far to avoid second-guessing the decision by Attorney General Janet Reno.
Deferring to Reno to that extent, the relatives argued, directly contradicts a recent Supreme Court ruling that reduced the obligations of courts to enforce decisions made by federal agencies.
Neither the Justice Department nor the boy's father reacted publicly to yesterday's request.