Slim And None

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In the wake of Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls' catastrophic ruling for the Gore campaign Monday, an unnamed attorney for the Democrats said about the most candid thing I've heard from a lawyer or politician since I came to Tallahassee almost a month ago.

He told CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts, "We just got our clocks cleaned."

Clocks cleaned. Request denied. Contest trial over. No more votes. No more handcounts. No hanging chads. No dimples. No changing tally in Nassau County.

In one brief statement that could signal the beginning of the end of this post-election fight, Judge Sauls embraced almost every Republican argument and position and rejected almost every Democratic argument and position.

Sauls even embraced a pro-Bush position that any manual recount undertaken would have to be state-wide in order to pass legal muster — and I thought that was one pretty bogus argument.

Sauls' ruling was so one-sided, in fact, that I cannot conceive of how it could have been made worse for Al Gore.

Clearly, Sauls was not impressed in even a minor way with the evidentiary presentation made by the Democrats over the weekend nor was he convinced to any degree that Florida law required him to help Gore in any way.

And he categorically rejected the main contention made by Gore attorney David Boies that the best evidence in the case — those ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach — should have been reviewed by the judge before he ruled.

Before the ruling, some Gore attorneys had figured that the judge might at least give them some of what they had asked for.

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Click here to read the U.S. Supreme Court's Dec. 4 ruling.

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Or here for an index of all the court briefs and orders produced so far.

They figured that they might possibly get a recount of those Miami-Dade ballots, which never have been evaluated by humans. Or that Judge Sauls would at least count those 215 votes from Palm Beach's manual hand count and those 160 or so from Miami-Dade's sample hand count.

No one seemed to be talking about the "big" win the Gore cap clearly needed from this lawsuit. They must have known, then, that they hadn't presented the most compelling case possible during the marathon weekend hearing.

They figured right.

If the Democrats ultimately lose this fight — and boy, that's the way I'd be betting right now — someone might ultimately point a finger at Boies and Company for the way they handled this particular lawsuit.

The Gore witnesses on Saturday were positively miserable and it made me think then: is this the best the Democrats have to offer? Aren't there any two other witnesses in the world who could have better made the case that those ballots had to be counted because they would have made a difference in the race?

And even when the Gore lawyers scored some hits on Republican witnesses late Saturday and Sunday, it was clear that the Democrats had presented a case that only a sympathetic judge would buy into.

I wondered aloud then about whether Judge Sauls was such a judge and, if he weren't, about whether the Democrats had met their burden of proof.

He isn't and they didn't. And clearly the judge was thinking the same thing as me (and others) about those Gore witnesses.

He ruled Monday that the Democrats had offered "no credible statistical evidence" which would "establish a reasonable probability" that the election would or could turn on those ballots.

And, just as critically, he ruled that officials in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Nassau Counties had not abused their discretion when they, in one way or another, failed or refused to do what the Gore campaign had asked them to do. Among all the other bits of good news for George W. Bush, these two aspects of the judge's rulings obviously were the most significant.
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Now, the Florida Supreme Court might disagree with Sauls about the legal tet applied in this situation — that's about all the Democrats can hope for. The justices might even rule that Sauls erred legally when he failed even to look at the ballots. But the appellate court is unlikely to second-guess him on the "no credible evidence" portion of his ruling.

And the appellate court also is unlikely to rule that Sauls got it completely wrong when he decided those county officials got it completely right.

Appellate judges are renown for giving great deference to trial judges on issues involving the credibility, relevance and significance of evidence introduced at trial.

This is true because appellate judges know that trial judges are in the best possible position to judge witnesses and weigh testimony. So in this respect, Judge Sauls didn't just rule against Gore on Monday; he ruled against Gore in a way that will make it particularly difficult for the Supreme Court to overturn him.

I'm not guaranteeing that the state's high court won't jump in and help Gore. But I'd be surprised if it did.