WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - With a plane standing by to take 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez and his father back to Cuba, the boy's Miami relatives rushed to the Supreme Court yesterday with a plea to keep him here at least two more weeks.
Lawyers for the boy's relatives argued that the court would lose authority over the case if the boy returned to Cuba and that there would then be no chance to seek asylum so that he could remain in the United States.
They noted that, as of 4 p.m. tomorrow, a lower-court order that is keeping Elian in the country will run out and that if the Supreme Court does not step in, Elian "could be removed from the United States" immediately.
The Justice Department is expected to reply to the new legal maneuver today and to urge the court to allow Elian and his father to depart. Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, is also likely to oppose the relatives' new request.
Though the relatives' effort to gain an asylum hearing for Elian has failed in four lower court decisions, their attorneys contended yesterday that only the nation's highest court "has the constitutional stature and moral authority to render the final word that will stand the test of time in this divisive, difficult and nationally significant case."
In papers filed at the court, the relatives urged Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to block any departure tomorrow and to set up a schedule for the case to go before the full court the week of July 10.
Kennedy, who handles emergency requests that arise from courts in Florida, where Elian's asylum case began, is expected to share with his colleagues the task of resolving the case.
The justices are scheduled to complete their term tomorrow and are expected to act on the postponement issue before beginning their summer recess. They, too, are facing a deadline tomorrow if they want to preserve their chance to consider Elian's case.
A Justice Department official said private organizations have arranged for a plane to take Elian to Cuba promptly, with his father, stepmother and half-brother.
The Miami relatives, beyond seeking to temporarily delay Elian's departure, argued that if the court agrees to hear their appeal, it should then delay his return until the dispute is decided. That could take months.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld Attorney General Janet Reno's decision not to consider asylum for Elian. Reno concluded that only the boy's father, who opposes asylum, could speak for him.