Bush's lawyers allow themselves smiles

By Lynda Gorov, Globe Staff, 12/5/2000

ALLAHASSEE - For a moment, they let themselves applaud themselves.

In court they had been appropriately somber: no cheering, no smug smiles. But afterward, the attorneys for George W. Bush couldn't resist.

A tentative clap, clap, clap could be heard as they gathered behind closed doors near the courtroom where every ruling had gone their way. There were bear hugs and back slaps, both heartier and harder than usual.

Downstairs, facing a bank of TV cameras, Bush attorney Ben Ginsberg allowed himself a satisfied smile or two. He got off one one-liner, then another. For once, no one was questioning his candidate's triumph - if only for a day.

''We had a wise judge who applied the law,'' said Phil Beck, another of Bush's lawyers.

Abandoning the sense of corn-pone humor that had entertained CNN viewers through the long hours of the weekend trial, Leon County Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls yesterday decimated every argument Al Gore's own enormous contingent had made. In his now-familiar drawl, the judge went point by point, each time taking Bush's side, each time leaving Gore farther from the White House.

For 10 minutes, the only other sound beside Sauls' voice was the slow click of cameras shooting without flash. The folksiness gone, he spoke with such a deadpan drawl that an odd suspense filtered through the courtroom. It was high drama, acted out at a decorous pace.

Again and again, Sauls announced he had found no basis for the hand recount the vice president sought. He said Gore's lawyers had introduced no evidence indicating a recount would lead to the Democrats' desired outcome. He said the Washington lawyers in their dark suits and crisp shirts failed to prove fraud, coercion or other malfeasance had occurred during the Nov. 7 election or post-election recounts.

''Further,'' Sauls said as he went through each of the three counties involved in the case ''Albert Gore et. al.'' brought against Secretary of State ''Katherine Harris et. al.'' to contest Florida's election results. Then bam, bam, bam, the judge said, in so many words, that this canvass board hadn't abused its discretion, and that that one hadn't failed to comply with state standards. He characterized an appropriate election contest as all or none: seek a review of all 6 million ballots cast in Florida or don't come to court.

Attorneys from both political parties, who had appeared calm even if they were privately agitated in the moments before the judge entered, sat absolutely still as Sauls read on and on. Journalists scribbled. Both legal teams had someone ready to run from the courtroom and file an immediate appeal. The unknown was which side would do the running to the clerk of the state appellate court. The Democrats drew that short straw.

''I'm never going to speculate as to why a judge made a ruling,'' said Gore's lead attorney, David Boies. ''They won, we lost. This will get resolved'' in the Florida Supreme Court.

For his part, Boies wasn't frowning. In fact, he too was smiling, although not as widely as his counterpart on the Bush side. He had an it-ain't-over-till-its-over glint in his eye. On a day when the US Supreme Court also put Florida Supreme Court decisions favoring Gore into question, neither he nor his candidate were conceding much of anything.

Not surprisingly, Gore's lawyers questioned the wisdom of Sauls' ruling, saying the judge had refused to consider a key piece of evidence: the ballots themselves, which are now under lock and key in the state Capitol. Just as unsurprisingly, their opponents had nothing but compliments to pay Sauls.

''The secretary has been completely vindicated ...,'' said Joseph Klock, the attorney representing Harris. ''This is a very thoughtful judge.''

Lawyer Barry Richard, representing Bush, said he had no regrets. He called Sauls satisfied with the defense arguments, adding, ''I couldn't think of a stronger way to write it.''