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Breaking News

Fifth Judge Recuses Himself From Presiding Over Palm Beach County Lawsuits

Aired November 14, 2000 - 1:24 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to go back to Florida, now, where seven voter lawsuits are in court. A hearing has just gotten underway on the challenge to the legality of the West Palm Beach butterfly ballot which, you know, has been criticized as illegally so confusing it caused them to vote for the wrong presidential candidate.

CNN's Mark Potter is watching over that story, which has taken several twists and turns today -- Mark.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, I'm just watching, right now, a development in the courtroom. It's developing at the moment. We're listening to the chief judge in this case explain that he might be the wrong judge for this case, if you can believe that.

PETER BLANC, JUDGE, PALM BEACH COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT: And then, once that motion is disposed of, the substantive motions set by hearing, set by Judge Kroll, either goes forward or, if it's continued, it's continued.

JOHNNIE B. ROGERS, LAWYER: (INAUDIBLE)

BLANC: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: Your honor, if I may inquire as to which judge this case has now been assigned?

BLANC: I think until all the paperwork gets through the clerk's office I'm just going to hold that within my own -- the breast of my heart, or whatever the saying is.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: Your honor, if I could further inquire into what I understand has been a very accurate record here. Is what your honor telling us, that this case is just going back into the blind, random computer assignment?

BLANC: Every reassignment other than my administrative order, which assigned the case to the lowest case -- filed case, has been by blind reassignment through the clerk's procedures in the clerk's office. Every single time it has been done, it's been done that way.

ROGERS: (INAUDIBLE) one minute?

BLANC: Yes, sir. ROGERS: That procedure, I think, makes sense; that's fine with me. The only logistical problem I may have is how the sheering by telephone in Dade County at 2:00 -- if I make explain to the court the problem that we're having, so far as Mr. Bush is concerned, is that there are being lawsuits filed literally all over the state.

We've only got a handful of lawyers who have sufficient knowledge of the issues. The same issues are being considered by courts all over the state and so we don't have a lot of lawyers who can handle it and, essentially, these two are up to me. So if we run up to 2:00, we're going to have to call into the 2:00 hearing in Dade, which should only take about 15 or 20 minutes.

BLANC: All right, Mr. Richard, my suggestion is that, if you have to do that, and I think it's safe to assume that that would be a very close deadline to hit here locally -- but that you do not get off of this line. You leave a secretary or a paralegal or an associate or a janitor, I don't -- somebody on this line.

ROGERS: I've got a lawyer, she's right here with me and she'll stay on the line.

BLANC: Yes -- that can come get you and inform us of your availability, OK?

ROGERS: That sounds fine. We will stay on the line.

BLANC: All right; fine. I have -- yes, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: I'm sorry your honor, I don't want to interrupt you -- if I could inquire further, you honor -- I'm sorry, I just want to make sure we have a record here (INAUDIBLE)

BLANC: Tell me about it.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: Can you tell us by virtue of which local rule, administrative order, and if this case has gone back into the random reassignment, as opposed to going back to the next lowest- number case of the cases which have been transferred into one division?

BLANC: I cannot quote you the administrative order; but it -- I feel quite confident there's a long-stranding administrative order that states, when a judge recuses him or herself, that the clerk is directed to randomly, blindly reassign the case among the judges -- the remaining judges in the particular division that the case is assigned to.

If I am incorrect and there is, in fact -- is not, in fact, an administrative order, it has been a long-standing policy ever since I've been on the bench, which has been 16 years, that that's precisely the way it's done.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: I'm wondering if the clerk...

BLANC: I know for a fact there is no administrative order in these types of cases that goes back up the line. That I know.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: I believe, though, that the local...

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: As you can hear from this courtroom in Palm Beach County, a fifth judge recuses himself from the legal proceedings that are trying to get underway there.

Let's talk with legal analyst Roger Cossack about what's going on.

Why are so many judges, Roger, not going to sit the bench -- sit on the bench on these?

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Natalie, you remember what Alice said, this is getting curiouser and curiouser. What I think is happening here is we are -- obviously this is a very, very, very important case and I think that it has to be made and decided by a judge who could perhaps never be accused of having any kind of conflict of interest.

And oftentimes the lawyers in the area and the judges are friends and talk about things and things happen prior to the judge getting assigned a particular case that they never assumed was going to happen, and suddenly they find out they've had a discussion with a lawyer prior to them getting assigned the case. And they say, look, I can't go forward, it's a conflict, or perhaps they have a relative or they've represented the lawyer on another case or they've had the lawyer in front of them.

There's a myriad of reasons; and this is the kind of case where the decision had to be made without any taint whatsoever and I think that's why you're finding people who are, sort of, erring on the side of conservatism here. And if there's anything that they could ever be accused of, they're stepping out.

ALLEN: Well, five have done so. How many county judges are in the county?

COSSACK: Well, you know, I can't tell you how many judges there are in Palm Beach County. You would there wouldn't be a heck of a lot more before they're going to have start going outside-county. This morning I know that Greta Van Susteren, my co-host, recommended me to come down there and be the judge. Well, I'm not sure I have a conflict, I can tell you I can't do it.

But I would say this, it's a good question. Eventually they're going to run out of judges if they don't find someone who will step in the breech and hear this case.

ALLEN: Didn't the Bush campaign want this whole Palm Beach question removed from the county to another county anyway?

COSSACK: Yes they did. And they wanted it because they were afraid that just the whole notion of having a judge in Palm Beach would be too much pressure on the judge having to make that decision and that someone from another county would be, in some ways, better. But, you know, I never really liked that argument. I think tough decisions should be made locally by local judges. And this is where it's ended up right now. But just by logistics, I suppose, you could argue that, eventually, it may have to go someplace else or they may have to bring in a judge from another county to hear this.

ALLEN: There are 11 judges, I'm told, in Palm Beach County, so there's a few more...

COSSACK: So we're about halfway through now.

ALLEN: We're halfway through the list. We'll have to keep tabs on that.

Now let's talk about what Greta Van Susteren was talking about -- the issue of -- that there's been an injunction on certifying the votes in Palm beach County. All the while the county judge in Tallahassee says the 5:00 p.m. deadline holds.

If that sticks on appeal, what happens to all these votes in Palm Beach County, can they not be handed in by 5:00 today?

COSSACK: Well, you know, one of the things, that -- first of all, you know, this is all guesswork because, as you know, there's going to be an appeal lodged immediately, if it hasn't been lodged already before the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether or not there's going to be that -- the decision that we just heard about will be reversed or at, least, stayed pending another discussion.

Also, I think what's really important -- or another hearing. I think what's also important is to understand that, in this decision that was made, what the judge said was that the votes have to be certified by 5:00 p.m. today, but if there are additional votes they can also be turned in and the secretary of state is not barred from counting those votes. They just have to certify the votes at 5:00 p.m.

But there is a conflict on the books, as you point out, Natalie; that will have to be discussed today. The judge has issued the injunction saying, no -- will have to, somehow come in front of the judges -- or the two decisions, one that says, yes they go in at 5:00, another one says you can't count them. That will have to be, somehow, worked out. And I suppose there will be judge, if they can find one, who will decide that today.

ALLEN: We'll continue to keep close tabs on that as it continues in Palm Beach County. Roger, we thank you; we'll be talking to you again, I'm sure.

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