WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court rebuffed yesterday the latest effort by the Miami relatives of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to keep the boy in the United States. It set up a timetable that could lead to his return to Cuba next week.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Atlanta gave the Florida members of the family five days to try one last maneuver - a plea to the Supreme Court.
The relatives said they would move Monday to take the case to the highest court.
"This historic case deserves consideration by the Supreme Court," said the relatives' spokesman, Armando Gutierrez of Miami. "We remain convinced of the justice of Elian's cause."
That final legal gesture is widely expected to fail, however, and if it does, the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, would be free to take Elian home as early as Wednesday.
In a five-page order, the appeals court said that none of its 12 members had voted to reconsider a ruling by a three-judge panel June 1. That earlier decision upheld Attorney General Janet Reno's refusal to consider political asylum for Elian, because his father opposes asylum and because Reno had concluded that only the father could speak for the boy.
Reno said she was pleased with the appeals court's action. "Now that the court has conclusively upheld our decision," she said, "I am hopeful that this father and son will soon be able to move on with their lives together."
Gregory B. Craig, the lawyer for Gonzalez, said yesterday that the father and son look forward to resuming "a normal life with their friends and their family." Craig said he would meet with Gonzalez over the weekend to talk about his plans "for the coming week."
The three-judge panel that had issued the original decision rejected, with only brief comments, the new challenges that the relatives sought to raise before the full appeals court. But the panel also rejected a request by the boy's father, supported by the Justice Department, to put its decision into effect immediately - a move that would have allowed Gonzalez and Elian to leave the country yesterday.
Order to be lifted
For now, Gonzalez and the department are barred by an appeals court order from taking steps to return the boy to Cuba while the case remains in court. The appeals court said that order would be lifted Wednesday.
But the court bluntly notified the Miami relatives that they would receive no further delays from that tribunal and that any other legal gestures they wish to make should be made at the Supreme Court.
The relatives and their lawyers agreed to move on to the justices, appealing not only the case itself but also asking Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to block the departure of Gonzalez and Elian in the meantime.
Kennedy is the justice who considers emergency legal challenges to decisions by that appeals court. Though he has the authority to decide on his own to keep the father and son in this country or to let them leave, he is likely to share that decision with his eight colleagues.
Many legal observers have predicted that the court, if asked to become involved, will decline - thus freeing Gonzalez and his son to leave.
The court is expected to begin its summer recess Wednesday or Thursday. Presumably, any plea by the Miami relatives for a postponement would be acted on quickly and perhaps even before the justices' recess begins.
The Miami relatives warned through their spokesman yesterday that if Elian returned to live under the Castro dictatorship before the Justice Department fully examined the asylum issue, there would be no power to bring him back to the United States.
The relatives took care of Elian for five months after he was rescued from sea off the Florida coast by two fishermen on Thanksgiving Day.
He and his mother had fled Cuba with others, headed for the United States, but his mother died when their boat capsized.
Elian was forcibly taken away from the Miami relatives in April by armed federal agents. Since then, he has been living with his father in the Washington area, awaiting final actions of the courts on the Florida relatives' insistent pleas that he be granted asylum.
Yesterday, there was no visible activity at the Northwest Washington estate where the boy and his father have been staying for nearly a month.
The Miami relatives have made several requests to the father for a chance to meet with him and Elian but have been rebuffed each time. The father has expressed resentment about the relatives' unrelenting pursuit of the asylum issue in court.
Earlier this week, in a brief filed in the appeals court, Gonzalez said through his lawyer that he expected Elian's great-uncle in Miami, Lazaro Gonzalez, to pursue every legal option available "to delay Elian's rightful return to his home."
The Florida members of the family have said that they were pursuing the case in court only to protect Elian's interest, fearing that he will suffer persecution if he returns to live in Cuba under communism.
Sun staff writer Ellen Gamerman contributed to this article.