No end in sight and no gum at Senate trial

ST. PAUL (AP) âÄî The strict rules of decorum inside the courtroom at MinnesotaâÄôs Senate election trial may have seemed heavy-handed, but they didnâÄôt seem out of control. Then they started busting the gum-chewers. âÄúMy mom is a teacher and told me never to chew gum in class,âÄù said Luke Friedrich, a press aide to Republican Norm Coleman, who the court clerk admonished for smacking his Juicy Fruit in the courtroom. âÄúSheâÄôd agree with the court on this one, and IâÄôm going to be in trouble when she hears about it.âÄù With two weeks down and who knows how many to go, the Senate case is in every way a âÄútrial.âÄù ItâÄôs a massive test of patience for the political flacks and journalists confined in a courtroom for seven hours a day with judges who banned cell phones and BlackBerries, bottled water, and yes, chewing gum. They donâÄôt hesitate to enforce the rules, either. âÄúMy phone went off in my pocket so I looked at it to see who called,âÄù said Jess McIntosh, a press aide to Democrat Al Franken. âÄúThe very kind court clerk came over and suggested that I turn it off now. Which I did.âÄù ItâÄôs been three months since the election that ended with Coleman and Franken a few hundred votes apart. A statewide recount left Franken ahead by 225 votes, which Coleman is trying to undo with a lawsuit that depends heavily on finding new votes in rejected absentee ballots. A U.S. Senate seat is at stake. But gone are the rollicking political debates and colorful campaign tactics of the general election, replaced by hours of dry testimony on the ins and outs of Minnesota election law. âÄúWhatâÄôs the difference between a registered but inactive voter and an unregistered voter?âÄù Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg asked a witness last week, in one typical exchange. (Not much, it turns out.) As ColemanâÄôs lead trial attorney, the folksy Friedberg makes an odd fit for this case. HeâÄôs one of MinnesotaâÄôs most prominent criminal defense attorneys, and at times seems impatient with hours spent interrogating the government employees who administer MinnesotaâÄôs elections. He hangs on to at least one flamboyant touch, showing up at the trial every morning wrapped in a massive, hooded fur coat that makes for quite a contrast to the conservative topcoats of his colleagues. The candidates have teams of lawyers, all male and white, who fight hard in the courtroom but chat amiably and joke during the trialâÄôs 15 minute morning and afternoon breaks. The biggest roles outside the courtroom go to FrankenâÄôs Marc Elias and ColemanâÄôs Ben Ginsberg, who give once- or twice-daily briefings before a bank of TV cameras. Both men have been through election lawsuits before, and they have a playfully caustic relationship. During one break, Ginsberg held the courtroom door open as the crowd filtered out, then acted as if he was about to slam it on Elias. Both tend to lavish praise on the otherâÄôs legal team, particularly if their opponent has had a bad day. âÄúLook, former Sen. Coleman has some of the best lawyers in the country,âÄù Elias said in one media briefing, on a day when ColemanâÄôs team was embarrassed that its own scribbling had invalidated thousands of pages it intended to introduce as evidence. The rules are enforced by Chris Channing, who serves as clerk to the three judges hearing the case âÄî Elizabeth Hayden of Stearns County, Kurt Marben of Pennington County and Denise Reilly of Hennepin County. Asked to talk about enforcing the rules, Channing said he needed to check with the judges âÄî then returned to say he couldnâÄôt. The big question for trial watchers has become: Just how long is this thing going to last? âÄúWhen do you think this is done? April? May?âÄù Mark Drake, another Coleman press aide, asked a reporter. With last weekâÄôs ruling that ColemanâÄôs attorneys can present evidence on as many as 4,800 rejected absentee ballots, the answer is weeks âÄî a mind-numbing prospect even for the judges, who can sometimes be glimpsed eyeing the clock in the back of the courtroom as 4:30 p.m. approaches. And no matter what time of day, their exchanges with attorneys can be snappish. âÄúWeâÄôre well aware of your argument and reasoning from previous testimony,âÄù Judge Reilly chastened Friedberg, as he got into election minutiae with one county official. âÄúIn other words, we get your point.âÄù