Sweethearts’ murmurs give way to spat over who made senate trial so boring

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A window opened this morning — and may not quite have closed again completely — on the promise of a speedier resolution to Minnesota’s senate-seat dispute.

But first it was a retiree-age version of the Newlywed Game. Valentine’s Day seemed to have come early as Week 3 began in the election contest trial between Al Franken and Norm Coleman. The former senator’s lawyers started Monday by calling to the stand two husband-and-wife pairs of absentee voters whose ballots had been rejected for improper witnessing. The trial momentarily took a turn for the domestic with he-signed-she-signed testimony that seemed to soften even the lawyers on the Franken side, who let the couples off with only light cross-examination.

Then, just as what seemed sure to be more interminable questioning of a local election official (this time from Dakota County) was getting underway, Franken attorney David Lillehaug rose to make a major objection: Coleman’s side had not answered the Franken side’s questions about the evidence they were going to present, as the court has ordered them to do.

Lillehaug said the trial’s “extraordinarily inefficient” process was due to Coleman’s failure to respond to Franken interrogatories — essentially not answering questions about the ballots that Coleman will be putting into evidence.

For nearly 4,800 individual rejected ballots, Lillehaug said, Coleman’s side produced only two spreadsheets: one with 3,116 ballots for which they contend the voters complied with state statutes, and another of 1,623 ballots for which the voters’ noncompliance was the fault of election officials.

Specifically why does Coleman think any individual ballot should be counted? “We don’t find that out until direct questioning,” Lillehaug complained. Indeed, he said, Coleman’s attorneys often don’t seem to know the particulars of ballots until their own questioning of witnesses.

Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg responded that the snail’s pace of the trial was Franken’s fault because the campaign hadn’t allowed Coleman’s side to present ballots in statewide categories by reason for rejection.

“We could do this a lot cheaper and a lot quicker,” Friedberg told the court — if only Franken’s attorneys hadn’t jumped on flaws in Coleman’s photocopies of ballots, forcing a county-by-county process with county officials on the stand to vouch for and explain the markings on each election document and envelope.

But the court didn’t (yet) take the opportunity to rein in a proceeding that experts say could easily takes months longer at the rate it’s going — all the while costing the Democrats a crucial vote in the U.S. Senate.

After an hour’s recess, Judge Kurt Marben, the presiding judge of three who make up the special election contest panel, announced the panel was overruling the objection but would discuss the pace of the proceedings at the regular scheduling conference with both parties later in the day. With that, the painstaking examination of Dakota County Election Manager Kevin Boyle by Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg resumed.

Live streaming video from the election contest trial is available at The UpTake. Documents filed and orders issued in the election contest are available from Ramsey County District Court’s Web site.

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