Clock runs out on Franken-Coleman trial as legal teams’ stars take final shots


The last day of Minnesota’s Senate election trial played out like the closing minutes of a Final Two basketball game. In front of the courtroom’s wooden bleachers packed with fans and reporters, Al Franken and Norm Coleman each gave the ball to the guy on their legal team they figured had the best shot making closing arguments.

First up — for Franken — was Kevin Hamilton, a veteran of Washington State’s 2004 gubernatorial recount. Hamilton’s strategy was methodical but devastating as he attacked weaknesses in Coleman’s side. The Coleman team — who filed the election contest lawsuit to reverse Franken’s 225-vote recount advantage — hadn’t met its burden of proof, he repeated again and again.

“The failure of proof is simply breathtaking,” Hamilton said, in a baritone that boomed from above, over P.A. speakers set into the lofty reaches of a ceiling that rises to a round skylight high above the court.

At other times, Hamilton’s voice crackled with vituperation for Coleman’s arguments, one of which he dismissed as “a jumble of paperwork … that prove[s] nothing.”

When play stopped — in breaks that sometimes felt like overlong TV timeouts interrupting the flow of a championship match-up — the attorneys for both teams gathered like loose-limbed ballplayers for good-natured joshing under the giant chandelier that hung over the court like an arena scoreboard.

Next up, for Coleman, was Joe Friedberg, the Minnesota jury-trial hotshot who only took up the election-law game this year. A courtroom powerhouse with a winning, folksy charm, he didn’t disappoint the overflow crowd. He teased David Lillehaug, Franken’s Harvard-educated attorney, for having called Friedberg “ingenuous,” meaning candid, frank and guileless (rather than the word Lillehaug probably meant to use: “disingenuous”).

“I’ll try to be that,” Friedberg promised, drawing smiles from the judges even as he challenged their Feb. 13 ruling that strictly applied state law to eliminate from consideration many of the rejected absentee ballots Coleman hopes to have counted. “Frankly, I submit that you are wrong.”

Friedberg showed off a variety of verbal talents, including enunciation for effect on phrases like “witness after witness.” His emphatic delivery on a series of words — “guarded, sealed, surveilled” — sounded like former Minneapolis bandleader Craig Finn of the Hold Steady belting out the song “Sequestered in Memphis.”

Coleman sat at his team’s table, as he has for much of the seven-week trial. The former senator (and prosecutor) was as stone-faced as a Mt. Rushmore president while Hamilton spoke. His expression broke into a look of admiration and gladness during Friedberg’s performance. He sometimes seemed to almost mouth in unison the golden words that rolled off Friedberg’s lips.

When it was over — Hamilton demanding evidence that Coleman’s ballots meet every requirement of being legally cast, Friedberg countering that common sense demands a presumption of validity where one aspect or another is in question — Judge Kurt Marben raised his eyebrows with a look of stunned finality at his colleagues.

No buzzer buzzed. After 35 days, 134 witnesses, and 2,182 exhibits, Minnesota’s Senate election trial was adjourned — for good.