Gearing up for a courtroom fight for his political life, Republican Norm Coleman shook up his legal team Friday and put high-profile defense attorney Joe Friedberg at its head.

Friedberg, among Minnesota's most colorful trial lawyers, also is defending multimillionaire Nasser Kazeminy, a longtime Coleman intimate and supporter, against charges in a lawsuit that he tried to steer $75,000 to Coleman through a Texas company he controls.

The three-judge panel that will hear Coleman's case challenging DFLer Al Franken's 225-vote lead in the U.S. Senate recount said Friday that the trial will begin Jan. 26 at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul.

The Judicial Center was the site Friday of a closed-door meeting between the judges and attorneys for both campaigns, including Friedberg, Fritz Knaak, Tony Trimble and James Langdon for Coleman, and David Lillehaug for Franken.

The panel -- Stearns County Judge Elizabeth Hayden, Pennington County Assistant Chief Judge Kurt Marben and Hennepin County Assistant Chief Judge Denise Reilly -- later ordered that Franken's motion to dismiss Coleman's challenge of the recount results be heard Wednesday.

Despite Franken's lead, he can't be certified the winner under state law until the legal challenge has run its course. In addition to his motion to dismiss the case, Franken also is asking the Supreme Court to order Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to issue an election certificate. They have declined to do so until the court case is over.

Friedberg was recruited by the Coleman team to reinforce its litigation skills.

"Norm called me on the phone and said, 'Would you consider trying the recount case in front of the three-judge panel?'" Friedberg said. "I said, 'I don't know my election law and it looks like you've got about 100 lawyers.' But the answer was that very few of them are trial lawyers."

Franken and Coleman lawyers have dueled in recent days over how broad Coleman's legal challenge should be and how long it should take. The Franken camp wants a shorter trial that begins Jan. 26, while the Coleman camp proposed a five-stage trial beginning Feb. 9.

Nevertheless, both sides said Friday they were satisfied with the court's timeline.

"We are pleased that dates and details are now falling into place so we can begin this part of the process to ensure that every vote counts, and counts only once," said Coleman spokesman Mark Drake.

"We're pleased that the panel set this matter for trial on Jan. 26 and has rejected former Senator Coleman's attempt to slow-walk this process and further delay the seating of a second senator from the state of Minnesota," said Marc Elias, Franken's lead recount attorney.

Coleman's Senate term ended Jan. 3, leaving Minnesota with one senator for now.

'Unique type of proceeding'

Friedberg said that the Coleman case will be a team effort. "It's going to be like a trial, although it's a unique type of proceeding," said Friedberg after meeting with the judges. "There'll be witnesses, there'll be physical evidence, and I think it'll be a pretty orderly proceeding. You're looking at three judges there who all know what they're doing, and they're going to try ... to make it understandable to the public."

Lillehaug, one of Franken's lawyers, said that the judges discussed the technicalities of the trial, such as motions and discovery, and how it should proceed.

"Minnesota has an empty seat in the United States Senate, and the judges did comment that they thought this should be handled expeditiously," Lillehaug said.

Friedberg said that he has known Coleman for more than 30 years, since Coleman worked in the Minnesota attorney general's office. Asked how long he's been working on the election contest, Friedberg said: "You can look at your watch."

There are few trial lawyers in the Twin Cities who can match Friedberg's success and reputation. He won national recognition for his role in settling thousands of suits involving the Dalkon Shield birth control device, and has represented both the famous (philanthropist Percy Ross, acquitted on a charge of possessing hashish) and the infamous (grocery scion Russell Lund Jr., who committed suicide while awaiting trial for murder).

Regarding the Kazeminy case, Friedberg said the allegations are utterly without merit. "Of all the people I've ever known, Nasser Kazeminy is the least likely to do anything dishonest," he said.

Neither Coleman nor his wife, Laurie, are being sued in the matter.

Friedberg said that his plan for the election trial is to try to break down all the arguments to their simplest level: all votes legally cast should be counted, and no ballot should be counted more than once. The Coleman campaign maintains that a number of original and duplicate ballots in left-leaning precincts were mishandled, causing some votes to be counted twice.

The particulars of the trial schedule are important, Friedberg said, because there are multiple issues in the case.

"You can't put an opening statement together that really should chronicle what's going to go on in the trial, until you know the order of trial and what issues come before what other issues," Friedberg said.

Also Friday, the Supreme Court ordered that the petition of 64 voters who claim their absentee ballots were wrongly rejected be settled at the recount trial.

The order by Justice Alan Page noted that the three-judge panel is equipped to determine whether the ballots complied with legal requirements and should be counted.

Kevin Duchschere • 651-292-0164