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Minnesota justices skeptical over Norm Coleman’s case

Minnesota Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism Monday of Republican Norm Coleman’s claim that thousands of absentee ballots in his Senate race against Democrat Al Franken were illegally excluded.

During the hearing in St. Paul, Minn., justices pointed out that Coleman’s legal team acknowledged that no voter fraud had taken place. A lower court ruled in April that Franken had won the race by 312 votes.

Time and again, justices asked whether there was proof to back up Coleman’s allegations that the state’s electoral process caused “significant disenfranchisement.”

Coleman lawyer Joseph Friedberg said election officials in smaller counties across the state illegally excluded thousands of ballots, so that “depending on where you sleep depends on whether your vote gets counted.”

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But justices appeared skeptical of such claims of irregularities and said Coleman’s legal team had presented little evidence to support the position.

“We don’t have admissible evidence that can be considered by this court,” said Justice Christopher J. Dietzen, a Republican appointed to the court by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “It seems like you’re offering little more than an opening statement.”

After the hearing, Ben Ginsberg, a member of Coleman’s legal team, said he had expected tough questions and thought lawyers had provided enough evidence to sway the justices.

The Franken campaign countered that Coleman’s team had fallen short.

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“We’re confident in our case and in the arguments in our case, and we’re looking forward to the court’s ruling,” spokeswoman Jess McIntosh said.

The court is expected to issue a ruling in the next few weeks.

The hearing Monday was the latest development in the seven-month battle that has tested Minnesotans’ patience and endurance. The state’s second U.S. Senate seat has remained vacant since the election.

The morning after election day, Coleman, who had served in the Senate since 2003, was 725 votes ahead. But after a recount, Minnesota’s canvassing board in January certified Franken, a comedian, author and radio commentator, as the winner.

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Coleman’s lawyers want the state Supreme Court to return the case to the lower court and force a recount of about 4,500 absentee ballots that they say are in compliance with existing legal requirements.

As the months have passed, the public has grown understandably weary.

A Minneapolis Star Tribune poll released in late April reported that 73% of the people surveyed -- including a majority of Republicans -- wanted Coleman to concede if he failed to win his appeal before the state Supreme Court.

If Coleman loses his appeal to the state high court, the ruling could give Democrats a 60-vote majority in the Senate.

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That, in turn, would allow the party to override Republican filibusters and pass hot-button legislation such as healthcare reform.

Even if the state Supreme Court rules in Franken’s favor, the battle may continue. Coleman and his lawyers have said in recent weeks that they may take their fight to federal court.

“This has become a national political battle, and everyone’s waiting for what these state Supreme Court justices are going to decide,” said David Schultz, an election law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. “If the Republicans can’t get Coleman into office, then keeping that office vacant for as long as possible is the next best thing.”

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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