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Continued: Nick Coleman: Emmer on the recount: Honorable

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 27, 2010 - 6:48 PM

Politicians often choose holidays to dump press releases about their divorces or positions on controversial bills into a virtual news void in the hope that no one notices.

But Tom Emmer made a good-news announcement on the eve of Thanksgiving that deserves voters' thanks. In an interview with the St. Paul newspaper on Wednesday, the eve of the Black Friday blackout from any news that doesn't involve lines of shivering shoppers, Emmer declared that he won't be a nut about the recount.

Statesman-like pronouncements are in short supply these days, but Emmer came close to Elmer Andersen-like stature by committing himself to common sense and stating that he will not prolong the state's agony by challenging the results of the recount that begins tomorrow unless it dramatically closes the 8,770-vote gap.

"I don't want to put myself or others through a futile process," he told the Pioneer Press. He isn't throwing in the towel, he hastened to add. But if the manual recount -- due to be finished, with a declared winner, by Dec. 14 -- doesn't turn up evidence of major irregularities, and if Dayton's margin remains beyond reach, Emmer said, he will not go to court to prolong the uncertainty.

"If ... we're on the short end, we're done," he said.

A sentence that nearly declarative is a beautiful thing. Previously, Emmer strangely disassociated himself from Republican chair Tony Sutton's angry threats, presenting an appearance of reasonable Old Tom without committing to a reasonable course. Now, Emmer was promising that, absent evidence of fraud or irregularity large enough to change the outcome, he will forgo the kind of endless court challenge for which a nervous state has been bracing. That should bring a sigh of relief to everyone. It might even bring horn-blowing throngs into the street.

Minnesota can't afford to go through the wringer again, and the governor's office is more important than the Senate seat that was the subject of the Norm Coleman-Al Franken fight. Yes, Franken helped give the Democrats and President Obama a (short-lived) filibuster-proof majority. But the wangling over the seat didn't cripple Washington the way that a marathon recount fight this year could interfere with crucial work in St. Paul.

Emmer's assurance -- his "do the right thing" moment -- was badly needed after two days earlier in the week when Recount Fight Fever was on the rise and it looked as if crazy rhetoric had the upper hand. There were two battles involving haggling Minnesota Supreme Court justices, past and present, that amped up the volume and made it appear that each side -- already heavily lawyered up -- was ready to rumble.

In one, the current Supreme Court rejected a Republican bid to confuse the issue by making distinctions without meaning in certifying numbers of reconciled votes. The next day, the Canvassing Board, which includes two sitting Supremes, faced former Chief Justice Eric Magnuson -- now unwisely working as lead lawyer for Emmer.

There has been whispering in Capitol corridors about the "awkward" situation involving Magnuson -- Tim Pawlenty's former law partner. Magnuson was plucked out of private practice by his old friend and made chief justice in 2008, only to step down last June. Now he leads the GOP challenge to the state legal and electoral establishments while his old Supreme Court seat is still warm. In the view of legal experts, he should have let it cool off longer before entering the partisan fray.

"There ought to be a debate about it," says Prof. Richard W. Painter, an expert on judicial ethics at the University of Minnesota Law School who served as chief ethics adviser for the Bush White House from 2005-2007. "Judges need to be careful about this stuff, and there should be clear rules to limit these kind of problems." Painter suggests a "cooling off" period of one or two years, similar to federal rules that prohibit government officials from becoming lobbyists right after they leave office.

On Tuesday, Associate Justice Paul Anderson, who sits on the canvassing board, reminded his old boss that Magnuson used to swear in new lawyers by admonishing them that their duty to the law is as important as their duty to their client. Anderson asked his old boss to commit to that principle in the hope of avoiding "frivolous" court challenges that would prolong the recount without making a difference to the outcome. Magnuson grudgingly obliged, but anyone watching the Jousting Justices would have been justified in worrying that we are used to going down Crazy Lane.

But then along came Emmer, who gave Minnesotans a glimmer of hope on the eve of Turkey Day: If he is still losing after the recount (no margin as large as Dayton's has been overturned by a recount), he says he will graciously go away.

He deserves great appreciation for that. Leadership, these days, is rare.

Nick Coleman is at nickcolemanmn@gmail.com.

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