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Florida judge hears case against Harris


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The courtroom drama at the heart of Judge Terry P. Lewis' debut novel, "Conflict of Interest," stars a Florida defense lawyer with a secret past and a dead lover.

The drama that unfolded in Lewis' Florida courtroom yesterday is no legal whodunit. It's a political thriller involving a contested election, the striking woman with the power to affect the outcome, and the American presidency that hangs in the balance.

Republican elections chief Katherine Harris has been accused of a conflict of interest as well - she is the co-chairman of George W. Bush's Florida campaign, though that didn't figure in yesterday's proceeding.

Lewis was asked to find that Harris, the Florida secretary of state, abused her authority when she decided Wednesday to ignore manual vote recounts in certifying state election returns that gave Bush the lead so far in the disputed race.

The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, is relying on manual vote counts in three mainly Democratic counties to tip the balance in his favor.

The winner in Florida will claim its 25 electoral votes and the presidency of the United States. It's a political potboiler worthy of discussion at the Tallahassee Writers' Association, of which Lewis, 51, is a member.

Although the Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Florida counties could continue recounting their votes by hand, the case before Lewis could well determine whether those recounts become part of the final vote totals. His decision is expected today.

Yesterday, lawyers for Harris, Gore and Bush jammed the trial tables in Lewis' spare and colorless courtroom. There were so many lawyers for each side that half of them had to sit in chairs behind the trial tables.

Reporters, television broadcasters and Democratic and Republican party faithful filled the jury box and the public seating area.

The case pits two county elections boards and the vice president against Harris, the state canvassing board and the Texas governor. The matter yesterday involved a court order from Lewis and Harris' compliance with it.

W. Dexter Douglass, 71, a silver-haired Tallahassee attorney representing the proponents of the manual vote counts, led off, addressing the court in a whispered Southern drawl.

He argued to Lewis that Harris had violated the order by choosing to disregard manual recounts even before they had been completed.

Lewis had ruled previously that Harris had the authority to accept or reject vote totals that came in after a state deadline of Tuesday night, but that she "may not do so arbitrarily." Douglass,who served as legal counsel to a Democratic governor, contended that Harris didn't seriously consider the requests by Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties to amend their vote totals.

How could she? he argued. She had issued her ruling six hours after the county election boards made their case for amended vote totals in writing. And, she didn't wait until the manual recounts were completed.

Douglass maintained that Harris' decision was made "long in advance." She made a concerted effort to confuse and confound the election boards, he argued. In doing so, he went on, she and two other members of the state elections board had violated the state's open meetings laws by certifying election returns without public notice.

Without asking the judge to cite her for contempt, Douglass said, "We think her failure to take the direction of the court should be corrected by the court."

In a novel, Douglass would be the country lawyer, a gentleman with a sharp mind who doesn't suffer fools lightly. Joseph A. Klock Jr., Harris' lawyer, was succinct, straight-talking and smart in the courtroom. A Tallahassee lawyer, he was born in Philadelphia and attended the University of Miami Law School.

Rotund with sandy gray hair, Klock defended his client, saying she took "enormous care" to follow the judge's order. He wasted little time in telling the judge that Harris "exercised her discretion reasonably." She developed criteria to consider the county election board requests, applied them and made her decision, he said.

"At this point in time, the secretary has not violated your order," said Klock, who supported Bill Clinton during his 1992 run for president against the GOP candidate's father, incumbent President George H.W. Bush.

Then came Michael A. Carvin, a Washington lawyer in town to press the Texas governor's interest. Tall and tanned, Carvin, 44, attacked the county elections boards for failing to meet a state deadline for election returns and then dallying with their recounts.

They can't, he argued, "micromanage the election process while the nation waits."

Carvin, a former Justice Department lawyer during the Reagan years, said the county elections boards had a deadline. If they could get the manual counts completed in time, then fine, he said. If not, that's the end of it.

It's not unlike when a lawyer has to divide his time between a paying client and a pro bono case, Carvin said: The paying client comes first.

"The only rational course is to end this conflict and stick with the statutory deadline and let the election results go," he said.

Douglass, the Democrats' lawyer, wanted to respond to Carvin's analogy to the choices lawyers must make - an example he found telling, he said. Here was the hometown guy's chance to take a shot at the big-time Washington lawyer invading his small-time Southern town. He took it.

Douglass preferred to compare Harris' treatment of the county elections boards to the policeman who orders a motorist to stop. Cars pile up behind the driver.

"And then the police comes over and says, 'I'm writing you a ticket for blocking traffic,'" said Douglass, who sat at the trial table with the Gore camp's well-known Washington lawyers.

Matt Butler, a retired businessman and Republican voter, sat off to the side of the courtroom. He listened intently to the arguments. He flew here from Naples to participate in the case, joining on the side of Bush and Harris.

A former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Nebraska, Butler joined the case because he wanted the judge to take into account voters like him who oppose the recounts in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

"They were going to invalidate my vote," said Butler. "I'm one of 6 million voters in this election but that's all I've got."

Last year, at 41, Butler sold his trucking and taxi business and retired to Florida. "I just wanted to play with my boat and watch my kids grow up," he said.

In his spare time, might he pick up Judge Lewis' novel?

"I don't want to say that," Butler said. "It might cause a conflict of interest for him."

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