All Florida becomes a stage for lawyers

Early in the evening of Nov. 10, leaders of New York Lawyers for Gore-Lieberman received an urgent phone call from the Democratic National Committee. The party needed attorneys in Florida - fast.

One day later, 29 big-city litigators were on the ground in the Sunshine State, listening to tales of ballot-punching woe, preparing to oversee vote recounts, or just carting paper from one temporary office to another.

In the weeks after Election 2000, Democratic and Republican law professionals have flooded into Florida like modern Minutemen. They wear wingtips instead of wigs, but Paul Revere would still recognize their guiding principles: assemble fast, hit hard, melt into the trees.

As legal matters involving Indecision 2000 grow more complicated, it is they - not campaign chairmen or pollsters - who are increasingly ascendent. This is perhaps not surprising in an America where many complicated issues, from abortion to the availability of tobacco, are ultimately resolved in the courts.

"Courts tend to be our safety net when other institutions fail to do their job in a way that inspires confidence," says Marc Galanter, a University of Wisconsin law professor who studies US litigation patterns.

Lawyers are far from popular with the general US public. Like bomb squads and dentists, they are most appreciated by those with a dire need for their services.

And both George W. Bush and Al Gore have a pressing need for legal warriors. The extent to which attorneys have supplanted political professionals perhaps became fully apparent on Tuesday, when Bush team leader James Baker held a press conference and announced five new leaders of the Republican's Florida litigation team.

He presented them almost as if they were briefcase samurai capable of winning by simply showing up.

"We've got quite a bit of accumulated years of trial experience behind me here," said Mr. Baker.

Baker is himself an attorney, of course. Along with former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger, ex-Assistant Attorney General Theodore Olson, and several other prominent Republican lawyers, he forms the general staff level of the GOP legal army.

Baker's counterpart on the Democratic side is David Boies, a New York litigator who defines the word "rumpled" and has been known to live on stale carbohydrates for days at a time. Yet he almost singlehandedly humbled Microsoft during its antitrust case.

A matter of status

At Mr. Boies's level, involvement in the battle of the chads isn't likely to be about money. At least, not directly. In fact, it is unclear whether Boies or co-counsels Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor, and former White House counsel Jack Quinn are being paid at all.

It is, rather, about exposure and a stamp of approval, about becoming The Man To See, in a phrase applied to the late, legendary Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams.

"To be involved in this kind of case at this level is an imprimatur that you are one of the best," says Viet Dinh, a Georgetown University law professor who worked on the Senate Whitewater legal team.

The men in gray may also believe in the candidate and the principles they are representing, of course. Such ideological motivation is very important to their foot soldiers, the hundreds of lawyers from around the country, many important in their own right, who have answered party calls to do whatever is necessary.

Many aren't getting paid. Many are probably annoying their law-firm bosses - at least one Democratic Florida lawyer has quit his job rather than stop working on the Gore effort.

True believers

But to many, this is why they became lawyers in the first place.

"They really are pumped about government," says Abner Mikva, former legal counsel to President Clinton. "They really do care about the outcome."

Not everyone is happy that it appears the next president will be chosen by what some have called a tournament of lawyers.

America's litigation explosion was itself a subtext of the campaign, critics point out. Mr. Bush has called for tort reform to limit the ability of class-action lawyers to win big judgments. Mr. Gore has adopted the traditional Democratic Party position of trial-lawyer defense.

The involvement of lawyers inevitably alters the tone of a controversy, some say.

"When lawyers take over, it becomes more polarized and they begin characterizing the other side in a more extreme way," says Walter Olson, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and author of "The Litigation Explosion."

Since World War II, courts have increasingly stepped in and resolved questions that elected officials were unable or unwilling to resolve. The US is the only democratic nation where abortion is legal because courts, not lawmakers, made it so. Even the fate of Elian Gonzalez was settled through the legal, not political, process.

Partly, this is because the US public views its courts with more respect than more partisan branches of government, say the legal system's defenders. That is why some experts feel it is a good thing that the courts are heavily involved in settling what has turned out to be the closest presidential election in US history.

If the courts do their job in a reasoned manner, "the public is going to accept a result, whatever it is, much more calmly," says Lloyd Cutler, former legal counsel to the Clinton White House.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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