Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2000/ 10 Kislev 5761
Thanks to the admirable performances of attorneys in Judge N. Sanders Sauls' circuit courtroom in Tallahassee - as Sauls ultimately rejected Al Gore's request to overturn George W. Bush's certified victory in Florida - America's legal gladiators are entitled to at least a temporary moratorium on lawyer jokes.
Specifically, the performances of David Boies and Barry Richard, attorneys for Gore and Bush, respectively, were a welcome shift from what we last witnessed as a nation glued to court proceedings during the O.J. Simpson trial.
Not once were either of the presidential candidates' attorneys - or any of a half dozen others who spoke - compelled to rhyme a couplet or to profile for the television cameras. In fact, these focused, articulate gentlemen of the bar seemed unaware that there (ital) were (end ital) cameras in the courtroom.
Lawyers' lawyers, Richard and Boies belong to a breed that once characterized the legal profession, before the dawn of ambulance chasers, personal-injury hounds and Yellow Page hawkers. They're the sort who made mothers hope their children might grow up to be lawyers.
Of course the spinners who tell us what to think during commercial breaks reminded us that the proceedings were "boring." Who wants to know so much about ballot design and voting-machine maintenance? Certain legal analysts made famous during the O.J. doggerel-a-thon explained each lawyer's strategy with the ho-hum attitude of veteran Broadway critics reviewing a community theater production. After trials of sex, murder and DNA, who gives a chad about the quality of rubber? (I'm referring to the Simpson trial, not the Clinton administration.)
We've become so accustomed to news-as-entertainment, we're disappointed when the substance of a particular drama falls short of the musical score that precedes each installment. If Jay Leno can't one-line a day's events, did anything really happen?
Alas, the weekend's court proceedings with Boies and Richard offer little for the parody peddlers. Character, after all, defies caricaturization. The same goes, too, for Sauls, though one TV commentator took a satirical stab at the judge when she described him as coming from "Margaritaville," suggesting that the judge's laid-back manner is a tad slow-paced for the "West Wing" and "Law & Order crowd."
Maybe it's the Florida cracker in me, but I found Sauls' faux slow-take charmingly disarming, just the right foil for anyone tilting toward self-importance. He conveyed in every way what you want a judge to convey: common sense, fairness, civility and, as a bonus, a sense of humor. Sauls made clear that he was neither intimidated by the big-name attorneys before him, nor by the magnitude of the case he had to decide.
He also betrayed none of his own political leanings, though he has been described as a conservative Democrat. None of his questioning, either of lawyers or witnesses, suggested that he will be influenced by personal politics. Which is to say, we feel we can trust him.
To witness our legal system, absent celebrity and the aura of entertainment, has been, if anything, reassuring. Our system surely is imperfect, but the proceedings of the past few days - in a small courtroom in a single county in one state in a large and diverse nation - suggests that we have reason, even in the midst of our national befuddlement, to be proud.
At various points since this undecided election began, Americans have wondered whether we suffer a dearth of heroes. Who, if anyone, might emerge heroic from the detritus of this contested presidential election?
The answer, regardless of who "wins," may well be found in Judge N. Sanders Sauls' courtroom, and the pickings, thankfully, are not
12/04/00: When rules become flexible, children misbehave