Coleman's next stop: Minnesota Supreme Court

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The three judges who heard Norm Coleman's election contest ruled the overwhelming evidence showed officials conducted a fair, impartial and accurate election. The decision is the latest setback for the Republican whose vote tally slid to 312 votes behind Franken's last week.

When the trial ended in mid-March, the panel hadn't ruled on a number of claims that Coleman's lawyers had raised throughout the election contest. This final unanimous ruling wraps up those claims.

Franken news conference
DFLer Al Franken talks to reporters Monday night after a three-judge panel declared him the winner of the U.S. Senate race against Republican Norm Coleman.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The panel denied Coleman's request to take out of the tally 132 ballots that disappeared from a Minneapolis precinct after Election Day.

The judges also denied Coleman's claim that polling officials double-counted ballots in some areas on Election Day. The panel said Coleman's lawyers failed to bring sufficient evidence to prove these arguments.

Coleman's legal team had argued that some counties had rejected ballots for reasons that other counties accepted them.

They also criticized the panel itself for its mid-trial decision to reject some ballots as illegal, even though the State Canvassing Board had already accepted and tallied them.

On these equal protection arguments, the panel had a couple of responses. The judges said they lacked jurisdiction over such concerns, because the law limits them to deciding which candidate received the most legal votes.

"The overwhelming weight of the evidence indicates that the November 4, 2008 election was conducted fairly, impartially, and accurately."

But the panel also said those claims lacked merit under both the state and federal Constitutions. In its final decision, the panel gave Coleman no legal victories.

"The overwhelming weight of the evidence indicates that the November 4, 2008 election was conducted fairly, impartially, and accurately," the judges wrote in their unanimous opinion. "There is no evidence of a systematic problem of disenfranchisement in the state's election system, including in its absentee-balloting procedures."

"I would call on Senator Coleman to allow me to get to work for the people of Minnesota as soon as possible," said Al Franken last night as he addressed reporters outside his Minneapolis townhome.

Franken said he was "honored and humbled" by the court's ruling, and said he was ready to get to work in Washington.

Franken said he would urge Coleman not to appeal the panel's decision. He said it's time for Minnesota, like every other state, to have two senators in Washington.

"I want to get going as soon as possible because we're facing tremendous problems in this country. An unprecedented array of problems," said Franken. "The sooner I can get to work, the better."

Three-judge panel
The three-judge panel ruled that DFLer Al Franken is the winner of the U.S. Senate electionj, defeating Republican Norm Coleman. The judges, from left, are Pennington County Assistant Chief Judge Kurt Marben, Hennepin County Assistant Chief Judge Denise Reilly, and Stearns County Judge Elizabeth Hayden.
AP Pool-Pioneer Press/Ben Garvin

Coleman, on the other hand, did not make an appearance. His campaign issued a written statement from attorney Ben Ginsberg, who said the panel's final order ignores the reality of what happened in the counties and cities on Election Day in terms of counting the votes.

Ginsberg said the Coleman camp "must appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court so that no voter is left behind."

This ruling marks an important milestone in the Coleman/Franken five-month election saga. The contest now moves away from the tedious task of scrutinizing ballots one by one.

If, as expected, Coleman goes through with the appeal, the case moves to scrutinizing the three-judge panel's decisions on entire categories of ballots.

Rick Hasen, an election law scholar at Loyola law school in Los Angeles, says the thoroughness of the panel's ruling means Coleman will have a tough, uphill climb.

Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg
Republican Norm Coleman's attorney Ben Ginsberg said again they will appeal the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"You have a unanimous opinion of the three-judge court, carefully considering and rejecting each of his major arguments both under state law and under the federal Constitution, the equal protection argument," said Hasen. "It's a carefully crafted opinion that treats his arguments with respect, and rejects them at what appears at first glance to be pretty sound reasons."

Taken as a whole, the ruling diminishes Coleman's chances of retaining a seat he won in dramatic fashion in 2002. That year, he narrowly defeated former Vice President Walter Mondale, who stepped forward when Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash with two weeks to go in the campaign.

Franken, who made his name as a "Saturday Night Live" performer in the 1980s, entered the Senate race more than two years ago. The former liberal talk radio host and author outlasted other Democrats vying for the seat. He overcame several stumbles to catch Coleman in the race's final weeks.

Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley's strong showing left Coleman and Franken virtually deadlocked on Election Night, triggering an automatic recount of 2.9 million ballots.

Coleman actually led by about 700 votes before routine double-checking of figures by local officials trimmed his edge to 215 votes heading into the hand recount.

Franken pulled ahead of Coleman in late December, and by the recount's end in early January he was up by 225 votes. Days after Coleman's single term expired, the former senator sued over the recount.

The trial gobbled up much of January, February and March. An appeal could push the race into May or beyond.

Coleman's legal team has 10 days to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but Coleman's lawyers have said previously they would not take the full 10 days.

Court press officer Kyle Christopherson says the panel has 15 days to turn over its files and transcripts to the Minnesota Supreme Court for the appeal. He says the justices can then set any deadline for both sides to provide their arguments in writing.

A key question for the high court is what tolerance for error is acceptable.

The three-judge panel gave its take, saying that local officials used "reasonable discretion to address election issues unique to their jurisdictions while still operating under the uniform standards of Minnesota law."

Either side can appeal an eventual state Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or throw the disputed election before the U.S. Senate, which can judge the qualifications of its members.

The trial court judges -- Hennepin County's Denise Reilly, Pennington County's Kurt Marben and Stearns County's Elizabeth Hayden -- were assigned to the case by the Supreme Court. But they became judges, respectively, under governors from the Republican Party, the Independence Party and the Democratic Party.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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