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Pawlenty emerges as key player in outcome of Senate race

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Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks to Republican supporters on election night, Nov. 4, 2008.
MPR photo/Chris Kelleher

While most of the attention has focused on the courts in recent weeks, it's clear that there could be a larger cast of characters in the five-month-long drama to determine who won Minnesota's U.S. Senate race.  

Key among them is Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.  Democrats contend he's required to issue and sign the election certificate once all of the appeals are exhausted in state court.  

Al Franken
Minnesota Democratic Senate hopeful Al Franken is shown at a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on January 21, 2009 in Washington, DC.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

For weeks, Pawlenty has said he would take direction from the courts, but is now suggesting that he could wait beyond the conclusion of state appeals if the case heads to federal court.

"I don't know whether [the certificate] would be required to be issued. I think it could be issued at that time," said Pawlenty. "I'm not saying I wouldn't issue the certificate. I'm just saying we should have all of the facts in front of us before we precommit to something like that."

Pawlenty's comments are the latest wrinkle in an endless Senate contest that is still being waged in the courts.  

Democrat Al Franken currently leads Republican Norm Coleman by 312 votes.  A three-judge panel is reviewing Coleman's challenge to a statewide recount of nearly 3 million votes, but Coleman's attorneys have already promised an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.  

"With all due respect to Gov. Pawlenty, it's not his job or his role to try to second-guess ... the State Supreme Court."

If Coleman loses in front of the Supreme Court, the key question is whether he would then file an appeal in federal court, and what impact that would have on when the winner will be seated in the U.S. Senate.  

For his part, Pawlenty said the loser may decide against appealing in federal court.  But if an appeal is filed, Pawlenty said he may wait to see how the courts handle Coleman's argument that there was not a uniform standard used to count the votes. That was the same arg

"I also would want to look at what the courts did with the case in terms of leaving issues for potential appeal, the strength of those issues, how directly and effectively they addressed them," said Pawlenty. "I'm not saying that I'm going to, or not going to, issue the certificate at that point. I just want to make sure I have all the facts in front of me before I made a decision like that."

"With all due respect to Gov. Pawlenty, it's not his job or his role to try to second-guess or Monday-morning quarterback the State Supreme Court," said Marc Elias, an attorney for Democrat Al Franken.  

In January, the Franken campaign filed a motion asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to order Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, to issue and sign the election certificate.  

Norm Coleman visits with his attorneys
Former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, second from left, visits with attorneys, from left, Tony Trimble, Joe Friedberg and Ben Ginsberg during a break in the Senate vote recount trial Thursday, March 12, 2009 in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone, Pool

The court declined, saying a certificate can't be issued until all of the appeals on the state level are exhausted.  Elias said he believes the case is clear once the Supreme Court process is finished.  

"Once they've ruled, [Pawlenty's] role is basically a ministerial one of preparing and signing a certificate, and having Secretary of State Ritchie countersign it," said Elias. 

Elias said he's confident Pawlenty will sign the certificate once the Minnesota Supreme Court issues its final ruling.  Elias wouldn't say whether the Franken campaign would ask the court to order Pawlenty to sign the certificate.

Meanwhile, Coleman's legal team has concluded there's no legal precedent on when the election certificate should be issued, according to campaign spokesman Tom Erickson.   

"It's an open legal question, but we'll defer to the governor on this and let him make his decision based on his own interpretation of the law," said Erickson. 

Officials with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office have said they believe the election certificate has to be issued and signed once the Minnesota Supreme Court issues its final ruling on the case.  Ritchie declined comment on Pawlenty's statement.