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It was not a typical first meeting with a client. Joseph Sandler, longtime counsel to the Democratic National Committee, greeted former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Gore campaign chief William Daley around 10 p.m. on Nov. 8 as they arrived on the scene in Tallahassee. By the time Christopher and Daley showed up, less than 24 hours after the Florida election count fell into confusion, a weary Sandler was working with fellow Democratic election lawyer John Hardin Young out of a windowless hotel room. Neither had slept or changed their clothes in more than 24 hours, Sandler recalls. “That was kind of a low point,” the 47-year-old Sandler says. “That’s not the way I like to conduct the initial client meeting in the most important case of my life.” A battalion of lawyers has now stepped into Vice President Al Gore’s high-stakes fight for Florida’s crucial electoral votes and the presidency. Their success or failure may determine who will be the next president. Some, like David Boies, have been front and center in the public relations battle as well as in the courtroom. Behind the scenes, a network of more than 100 Democratic attorneys from across the nation has been working around the clock to turn out briefs. Democrats and Republicans have obviously differed on their substantive view of the election process; they have also taken different tacks in building their legal teams. The Republican side has tapped a number of premier national firms to fill its ranks. Democrats, on the other hand, have taken a more piecemeal approach, mobilizing a flood of volunteers and party loyalists into what those on the inside call a “virtual law firm.” Despite a number of seemingly favorable court rulings, lawyers fighting for Gore remain, in many ways, precisely where they began: fending off federal litigation instigated by Republicans and fighting for the same recounts they thought had been won in the Florida Supreme Court before Thanksgiving. And some are beginning to acknowledge the cost of the early tactical decision to delay, as long as possible, certification of election results. With the Dec. 12 deadline for choosing electors just a week away and public patience wearing thin, Democratic lawyers are keenly aware that the clock is ticking. “I think we all know there are certain dates beyond which it is highly unlikely there will be anything to contest,” says one Democratic lawyer in Tallahassee. TIGHT QUARTERS Gore’s legal operation in Florida evolved from a handful of campaign lawyers who flew down to Tallahassee early Wednesday, Nov. 8, as the razor-thin margin of the state’s election became clear. The only senior lawyers on the plane were Sandler, Young, and Ronald Klain — Gore’s former chief of staff and a longtime Democratic operative. Christopher and Daley arrived Wednesday evening. Within two days, Klain pulled together about 10 election lawyers, litigators, and advisers. This core group included Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida who successfully challenged a Miami mayoral election in 1998, and Robert Bauer, counsel to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and managing partner of the D.C. office of Seattle’s Perkins Coie. Their objective was clear from Day One: Keep the counting going. The group temporarily set up shop in a strip-mall storefront before moving into the Tallahassee legal offices of Mitchell Berger, a major Gore fund-raiser and supporter. The cramped working conditions — a dozen people squeezed into five offices — were far from ideal. When Bauer arrived Nov. 9, the office had no cable hook-up for the lawyers to watch 24-hour news channels. For a time, five individuals — including Christopher, Daley, and chief trial lawyer David Boies, who arrived one week after the election — working out of the same small conference room. Just down the hall and across a small reception area is the local law firm representing Washington’s Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group seeking to review all the questionable ballots in Palm Beach County. The group in Tallahassee was kept lean — a revolving group of about a dozen lawyers. More troops were deployed to oversee manual counting and handle the ensuing court battles in each of the four counties where Democrats had requested recounts. Young, for instance, supervised recounts in Volusia County and then joined the team in Miami. Former White House lawyers Karen Popp, a partner in the D.C. office of Chicago’s Sidley & Austin, and Kathleen Wallman, now president of Wallman Strategic Consulting, were among key Democratic lawyers in Palm Beach. The team changed shape last week, as the lawyers who had overseen recounts trickled back to Tallahassee or Washington. And the core legal team moved again, this time to a larger space outfitted to their specifications adjacent to the Tallahassee law office of Gore trial counsel Dexter Douglass. According to those involved, Klain, 39, has essentially run the show from the start, with certain strategic calls made by Gore himself. Mark Steinberg, a close colleague of Christopher in the Los Angeles office of O’Melveny & Myers, acts as central coordinator of the legal efforts in each of the ongoing court cases, filtering work product coming in and out of Tallahassee. Assignments from the core litigation team are passed on to the vice president’s campaign counsel Lyn Utrecht and Gore’s White House counsel Lisa Brown, who identify volunteer lawyers to complete each task. (As a federal employee, Brown says she has been using vacation time for her work on the legal effort.) With multiple briefs being turned around overnight, Utrecht estimates that some 50 lawyers outside Tallahassee have been tapped for discreet writing and research projects, and another 50 have volunteered in Florida. Often, three or four attorneys would work on different portions of a brief that was then fed back to Tallahassee and pieced together. “We have lawyers all over the country working on projects. Some of them have been willing to have us call them at 11:30 at night as needs arise and then worked through the night to get things done,” says Utrecht, 48, a partner in D.C.’s Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon who also served as counsel to President Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential bid. “I don’t think anybody knows for sure how many people have been involved.” The behind-the-scenes help is an impressive roster of accomplished litigators and academics, many with Supreme Court clerkships or high-level government experience. Among those essentially acting as ghostwriters for the Democratic effort are Howard Gutman, a partner at Washington, D.C.’s Williams & Connolly; Charles Rothfeld, of counsel in the D.C. office of Chicago’s Mayer, Brown & Platt; Jonathan Hacker and Srikanth Srinivasan, both associates in the D.C. office of O’Melveny & Myers; Jonathan Molot, associate professor at George Washington University Law School; and Neil Katyal, associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “Basically what happens is someone calls me up at 10 o’clock at night and asks me if I can have something done by 5 o’clock the next morning. That’s happened three or four times,” says one Washington, D.C. lawyer who has contributed to several projects, including a brief asking the Florida Supreme Court to order Miami-Dade County to continue manual recounts. Events have moved swiftly since election night, and the recruiting enterprise has kept pace, Brown says. “The first thing we had people look at was the butterfly ballot and the general standard for contesting an election,” she adds. “When the Bush folks filed their district court complaint, obviously we had to change tracks.” Since then, the federal litigation has been handled somewhat separately. Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe agreed to represent the Gore team shortly after Republicans filed suit in federal court on Nov. 11. Klain also brought in Teresa Wynn Roseborough, a litigation partner at Atlanta’s Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and former deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Tribe and Roseborough have tended to turn to their own colleagues and contacts for assistance, rather than relying on the diffuse network of Democratic supporters. In contrast to Gore’s volunteer-based operation, the Bush team has taken a more traditional approach to the litigation, retaining several major law firms, including Los Angeles’ Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, New York’s White & Case; D.C.’s Covington & Burling; and Houston’s Baker Botts, home to current Bush frontman and former Secretary of State James Baker III. Their efforts have been supplemented by a steady flow of volunteers. One Democratic election lawyer at a Washington firm says it seems like business as usual for the parties. “The bottom line is that the Republicans always pay their lawyers and the Democrats almost never do,” he jokes. Democratic lawyers involved in coordination say turning to a law firm did not seem necessary. “We were literally flooded by calls from people volunteering to help,” Utrecht says. “I don’t know if anyone thought about hiring a law firm.” Despite the immense pressure and incredible fatigue after three weeks of steady litigation, Gore lawyers say they are still awed by the significance of their work. “This is the legal representation of our lifetime. There will never be more at stake in civil litigation or a greater chance to serve the national interest,” says Steinberg. One early volunteer at the epicenter of the history-making election contest is 35-year-old Richard Lucas, a partner at D.C.’s Arnold & Porter. Lucas, who represents the Clinton Legal Defense Fund, flew down to Tallahassee Nov. 9 to help review voter complaints filed throughout the state. He packed for the weekend. On his second day in town, Lucas stopped by Democratic headquarters at Berger Davis & Singerman to see if he could be put to use in Palm Beach, where the canvassing board was beginning manual recounts and Republicans had filed for an emergency injunction. He has remained at the Gore nerve center for the better part of the post-election period as a sort of roving trouble-shooter. “I was there long enough [that] people started asking for things to be done,” Lucas says. According to Lucas, it’s been his job to stay on top of the fast-moving developments — across the state and in federal courts — and keep other team members apprised. Yet for all the fast-paced developments, the Gore legal team seems to have come full circle. The relief being sought in the contest proceeding is essentially a reprise of what Democratic lawyers have been demanding from the start — manual recounts of contested ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Gore lawyers acknowledge there is not much time to get critical votes counted. Their contest includes only the most expedient and least controversial claims — a list finally approved by the vice president. Conspicuously absent from the contest are two issues being challenged elsewhere by Democratic voters — the two-column ballots in Palm Beach County, which Democrats claim confused thousands of individuals into mistakenly voting for Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan, and 15,000 questionable absentee ballots in Seminole County. “There were of course other challenges that could have been brought, including claims that others have brought,” Bauer says. “This was the campaign’s decision on an appropriate contest.” James Portnoy, a Democratic election lawyer at Covington & Burling, says the butterfly ballot claim may have been dismissed by Gore’s lawyers as undesirably complex and time consuming. “I assume there were also some real problems of remedy,” Portnoy says. “If the court concluded the butterfly ballot was improper, how would they fix it? All you can do, I suppose, is go back and have a new election.” One reason for the sharply focused complaint is the severe time pressure facing the Gore legal team. Several Democratic attorneys say they made a concerted decision early on to delay certification of the statewide vote, believing that such a certification would erode support for Gore’s continuing battle. But that legal and political calculation cost them precious time to fight the results. “It was believed strongly that we should try to delay certification,” says one senior Gore lawyer. “What obviously happened was this thing took all sorts of turns nobody expected.” For instance, while the Florida Supreme Court decision to allow manual recounts to continue beyond Harris’ Nov. 14 deadline appeared to be a victory for the Democrats, it brought unexpected consequences. Neither Palm Beach nor Miami-Dade counties were able to complete their hand counts in accordance with the court’s relatively strict timetable. Secretary of State Katherine Harris rejected partial returns from both counties and certified the election on Nov. 26, with Bush ahead by 537 votes. With the Florida Legislature now threatening to intervene by Dec. 12 to pick the state’s electoral slate, the extension only served to whittle away the number of days left to the Democrats to contest the certified results. As the senior Gore lawyer puts it: “We could be seriously running out of time.”

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