Trial likely on Florida lawsuit over 2000 election

By Catherine Wilson The Associated Press
Wednesday June 26, 2002

Civil rights groups protest state’s handling of process 


MIAMI — Florida and five counties have reached a deadlock with civil rights groups who sued over the bitterly disputed 2000 presidential election, attorneys told a judge Tuesday. 

“As far as I’m concerned, this case is going to trial,” U.S. District Judge Alan Gold told the attorneys on both sides after they told him mediation had failed. “It’s disappointing, but it is what it is.” 

The two sides conferred with a mediator as late as Monday night, but Hillsborough County attorney Ray Allen told the judge, “It was the consensus of the group that we had reached impasse.” 

The NAACP and four other civil rights groups are suing over problems that they claim disenfranchised voters during the election that was later settled in the courts. President Bush won Florida by just 537 votes; its electoral votes gave him the presidency. 

The judge had stressed his desire in May to solve the election dispute in mediation. 

Lori Borgen, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the groups suing would like to keep talking with hopes of making progress. 

The civil rights groups want the judge to examine the way the state and counties drop voters, process voter registration applications and address changes, and assign precinct equipment and staffing. 

“We don’t think that what the state intends to do from this point forward will sufficiently protect voters,” Anita Hodgkiss, another Lawyers’ Committee attorney, said after the hearing. 

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission had harshly criticized the 2000 election in Florida. When the commission met last week in Miami to review the state’s election changes, chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said she had a feeling the Sept. 10 primary will be “a mini-disaster.” 

But Gold’s trial, set for Aug. 26, is not expected to affect the primary, in which a Democratic challenger to Gov. Jeb Bush will be selected. 

Settlements have been reached with Broward and Leon counties and Choicepoint Inc., a Georgia company that helped Florida develop a list for stripping people thought to be convicted felons from voting rolls. Settlement papers with Choicepoint haven’t yet been filed. 

The remaining defendants include the state and Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange and Volusia counties, covering the cities of Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach. 

The lawsuit and a separate court challenge to redistricting are the last major court fights likely to influence coming elections in Florida. 

The Justice Department is still reviewing the state’s new legislative boundary lines for compliance with the Voting Rights Act, which mandates that redistricting plans protect the voting power of minorities. The department has already approved the state’s new congressional redistricting.