Half-year down, month to go before the high court appeal

  • Updated: May 2, 2009 - 9:43 PM

On Monday, the Minnesota U.S. Senate election will turn 6 months old. DFLer Al Franken has a 312-vote lead over Republican Norm Coleman after a trial that followed the recount, but action before the state Supreme Court lies ahead. Here's a brief Q-and-A intended to serve as kind of a status report after all the various twists and turns.

I thought the trial was over. Why are they back in court?

Coleman is appealing the result of the trial, in which a special three-judge panel ruled Franken the winner by 312 votes. Coleman is asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to rule that the trial court made mistakes in its interpretation of state law and the constitutional issues Coleman raised. Basically, he contends that the trial court was too strict about the requirements for accepting absentee ballots and believes thousands more should be counted.

If Coleman wins the appeal, will that mean he is reelected?

No. It probably would mean that the Supreme Court would send the case back to the trial judges, with instructions to count more ballots. The Supreme Court could also supervise the counting of more ballots directly, but most observers think a "remand" -- or sending the case back -- would be more likely. Either way, it isn't clear whether Franken or Coleman would come out on top if more ballots were counted.

But if Franken wins the appeal, he's elected, right?

Not exactly. Coleman could file an appeal in U.S. District Court, or appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. It's unclear whether that might further delay Franken's seating in the Senate. The state Supreme Court, if it rules for Franken, might order Gov. Tim Pawlenty to issue a certificate of election, which could later be rescinded if federal courts ruled for Coleman. Or one of the federal judges could issue a stay, and direct Pawlenty to wait.

Isn't it up to the Senate in the end?

Yes, but the Senate's rules make a state election certificate the key to being seated. Those rules could be changed, but that would be very controversial. On the other hand, many experts believe the U.S. Supreme Court might refuse to hear the case, and instead refer the issues in dispute to the Senate, which has authority to judge its members' elections under the Constitution.

 

The margin:

Mid-November: Coleman led by 215 votes, a hair's-breadth difference that triggered an automatic hand recount.

Early January: Franken led by 225 votes, after recount results were certified.

Now: Franken up by 312, after the Coleman challenge, or "election contest." Franken's lead grew because additional ballots were admitted, and Franken got the largest share of them.

The appeal

Coleman announced after the contest that he would appeal the panel's ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

On Thursday, he filed a legal brief presenting his argument about why the ruling should be overturned and what should be done.

Franken must file his reply brief, explaining why Coleman is wrong, by May 11, and Coleman must file his response by May 15.

The Minnesota Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on June 1.

The stakes

They got bigger last week when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party. The move gives Democrats 59 votes in the 100-member Senate, one short of the number they'd need to thwart GOP filibusters, parliamentary actions that can be used to prevent votes on bills. If Franken wins in Minnesota, he would be vote No. 60.

JIM KERN, D.J. TICE

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