From its opening summary to its closing sentences, the Minnesota Supreme Court meticulously sealed Norm Coleman's U.S. Senate chances Tuesday in a way that legal scholars agree left him little wiggle room.
The 32-page decision brushed aside Coleman's attempt to equate the U.S. Senate recount in Minnesota with the 2000 presidential election and draw legal parallels from the subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the historic case of Bush vs. Gore. In addition, legal scholars said, the state Supreme Court's unanimous opinion did not hand Democrat Al Franken a victory based on procedural grounds but instead was a sweeping endorsement of a three-judge panel's earlier ruling that was firmly rooted in state law.
The scholars also said that Coleman had to realize that eight judges appointed by Republican, Democratic and Independence Party governors -- three on the trial court and now five high court justices -- had come to the same conclusion. "There's a kind of an impartiality to it," said Ed Foley, a professor of election law at Ohio State University who closely followed the Minnesota race. "There's no political favoritism.
"This is a ruling on the merits," Foley said. "It gives a sense of closure."
Fred Morrison, a University of Minnesota constitutional law professor, said the decision was impressive because the state Supreme Court methodically cited chapter and verse of existing appellate law regarding absentee ballots, which for seven months were at the center of the Senate recount dispute. By doing so, he said, the court made it clear there was ample state law to apply to the recount, making it difficult for Coleman to argue otherwise or claim analogies to the 2000 presidential election.
Bush vs. Gore was a case about whether election officials in Florida "were making up things as they went," said Morrison. "This case shows that the special district court and the [Minnesota] Supreme Court simply applied the statute and the precedents that were already there and they weren't making up anything as they went."
For all of his legal arguments and many months of courtroom maneuvering, Coleman in the end was obligated to show that "actual ballots were counted wrongly," Morrison said. "All that he really showed was that they might have been counted wrongly." But Morrison said the trial court, and now the Supreme Court, was interested only in one legal bottom line: "Was it done in accordance with the law? If it was, that's the end."
In addressing a central component of Coleman's legal challenge -- whether the constitutional guarantee of equal protection was violated -- the state Supreme Court said a violation does not occur simply because different local election officials treated similar absentee ballots differently. "Equal protection is not violated every time public officials apply facially neutral state laws differently," the court said. To prevail, the justices said, Coleman had to show "intentional discrimination" either in the way local officials treated similar absentee ballots or in the way the trial court applied the requirements for absentee voting.
"Kaboom! This is kind of the exclamation point after the seven-month battle," said Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor. "It's an across-the-board rejection of the Coleman legal challenges.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673