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A settlement of a federal class action lawsuit in Miami alleging violations of the constitutional voting rights of Florida’s black citizens during the 2000 presidential election appeared imminent Tuesday afternoon. Attorneys for the state’s black voters and for several state and county agencies asked Judge Alan S. Gold in U.S. District Court on Tuesday to remove the case from the court trial docket. That apparently heads off a racially and politically charged trial just weeks before the primary and general elections. The trial, which would pit groups representing Florida’s black voters against the Florida secretary of state, two state agencies and two counties, has been taken off the court docket. “We have made significant progress. All parties agree we are in a position where we do not need to proceed to trial. We expect to have papers filed with the court by the end of the week,” said Anita Hodgkiss, an attorney representing black voters, at the afternoon conference call with Judge Gold. Hodgkiss is an attorney with Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups that sued on behalf of black voters in Florida. Thomasina H. Williams of Williams & Associates in Miami is local counsel for the plaintiffs. Joseph P. Klock Jr., chairman and managing partner of Miami-based Steel Hector & Davis, who is representing the secretary of state, said the chances of negotiations failing are “extremely remote.” But attorneys on both sides said they still had no final settlement terms to present to the court. Sounding uncertain about removing the case from the trial docket without a settlement outlined to the court, Judge Gold told the attorneys, “You leave me a little uncomfortable.” Nevertheless, all sides said Tuesday that they were so close to agreement that the trial date should be canceled. When asked by Gold if he should proceed on Thursday with the next trial on his docket, attorneys for all sides said yes. John W. Little III, a partner at Steel Hector in West Palm Beach, Fla., who is also representing the secretary of state, added that he is confident the parties can reach agreement and have settlement papers filed with the court on Friday. The settlement papers, according to attorneys in the case, will be immediately made public when filed with the court on Friday. Until then, Hodgkiss said, all sides have agreed not disclose any possible settlement terms or comment on the negotiations. Once settlement terms are reached, the rules of civil procedure require that a hearing be held to ensure the settlement is fair to all members of the class action suit. The NAACP and other groups, including the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the People for the American Way Foundation, filed the lawsuit in January 2001 after widespread allegations of voting irregularities in predominantly black precincts. At issue in the lawsuit is whether state agencies and county governments denied black voters their constitutional right to vote through various omissions, administrative failures and incompetence. Among the remedies sought in the lawsuit: restoring names that allegedly were wrongfully purged from the voter roles; establishing uniform criteria for all counties so polling places in black precincts are staffed with trained workers and have proper equipment like laptop computers; and giving the secretary of state a greater role in ensuring that counties process voter registration forms in a timely fashion. If the trial proceeds, it would be the first wide-ranging legal examination of claims that black voters were systematically denied the right to vote in the 2000 presidential election. Some experts contend that the bureaucratic obstacles that prevented thousands of black voters in Florida from successfully casting their vote swung the presidential election to George W. Bush, who officially beat Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida. A settlement would eliminate the possibility of a long trial that could reignite the widespread bitterness and resentment kindled by the 2000 election problems. Some political observers say a well-publicized trial detailing the government’s alleged failures in allowing blacks to vote in 2000 might boost black voter turnout in the upcoming elections and help Democrat candidates, including the Democratic nominee who will run against Gov. Jeb Bush.

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