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As judges named, Minn. Senate legal fight grows

  • Article by: BRIAN BAKST
  • Associated Press
  • January 12, 2009 - 8:16 PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Three judges put on the bench by governors of three political parties will hear the highly charged election lawsuit that stands between Minnesota and its second U.S. senator.

The panel named Monday by the state's highest court will preside over a Republican Norm Coleman's court case that seeks to overturn Democrat Al Franken's 225-vote advantage following a long recount. The case is expected to take months to resolve.

The three district judges are:

_Elizabeth Hayden of Stearns County, who has been a judge for more than two decades. She was appointed in 1986 by Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich

_Kurt Marben of Pennington County, a judge since 2000. He was put there by Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura.

_Denise Reilly of Hennepin County, a judge since 1997. She is an appointee of Republican Gov. Arne Carlson.

The appointments announced by Supreme Court Justice Alan Page came on a day of more legal maneuvering for a seat that's been in limbo since the Election Day results showed Coleman and Franken within a whisker of each other. Coleman was the initial leader by 215 votes out of almost 3 million cast, but the results flipped in Franken's favor during a state-required hand recount.

Franken's campaign caused a stir Monday morning by asking Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to speedily sign the election certificate he needs to take office in Washington. They both turned him down, and Coleman's campaign said it suggested Franken was fearful the court case might go against him.

Later Monday, Franken's legal team filed a slew of documents seeking to throw out the Coleman lawsuit at best and water it down if it remains active.

The Franken motion to dismiss calls Coleman's lawsuit "an imprecise and scattershot pleading."

"With each passing day, the vague and open-ended litigation brought by Coleman further deprives Minnesota voters of the senator they have elected to serve them," it concludes.

In his lawsuit, Coleman argues that the election and the recount were flawed because some ballots were given more weight than others and another batch of ballots were improperly left out of the count.

When the trial begins later in January, both sides will argue for the chance to put more ballots that could help them in play and keep those for their foe out. Unlike the recount, this phase allows them to call witnesses, examine voter rolls, inspect polling place sign-in sheets and explore the accuracy of voting equipment.

By Minnesota law, no election certificate can be issued until the court case known as an election contest runs its course. Senate leaders have said publicly that a signed certificate is vital, using the lack of one as a reason for temporarily blocking an appointment by Illinois' scandal-plagued governor.

Franken's lawyers said in their letter to the top Minnesota officials that federal election law entitles him to receive the certificate prior to the case's completion. On a conference call with reporters, attorney Marc Elias wouldn't rule out a Franken lawsuit to force the issuance of the certificate.

Ritchie said in response to Franken's letter that state law required him and the governor to withhold the document.

"Minnesota law is very clear on when a certificate of election can be issued. Neither the governor nor I may sign a certificate of election in the U.S. Senate race until all election contests have reached a final determination," Ritchie's written statement read.

The statement didn't specifically address Franken's argument that federal law supersedes the state law.

Pawlenty echoed Ritchie, saying it is clear the law won't allow him to issue a certificate while the race is being contested in court.

Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan dismissed the move as a power play meant to get around Franken's need to defend the election outcome in court.

"He can't and won't be seated in a seat he didn't win, so he is trying this underhanded attempt to blatantly ignore the will of Minnesotans and the laws of the state," Sheehan said.

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