American Journalism Review
January 2001 / February 2001
SECTION: Pg. 40
HEADLINE: Palm Beach Follies
BYLINE: KATHRYN QUIGLEY
Jockeying for position with the national media, worrying about her chad and longing for a real meal the Palm Beach Post's new civil courts reporter recalls life in the midst of the whirlwind.
When I accepted a position covering civil courts at the Palm Beach Post this fall, I had no idea it would propel me into the middle of one of the biggest political stories of all time.
After working in Florida for several years, I had vowed not to return (too many bugs, too hot, too far from my family and friends in Philadelphia, can't wear the cute new winter coat I just bought). Then I got a call from Bill Rose, then the assistant managing editor at the Palm Beach Post. He was looking for a civil courts reporter.
I had the interview and got the offer. While I was trying to decide if I really wanted to return to Florida, my mother lit candles for me at Mass and put my intentions under her statue of the Holy Family. I decided that accepting the job seemed like the right decision. "Maybe there is some reason you are supposed to take this job,'' Mom said.
Whatever the reason, the decision led to a tumultuous November.
Election Day. It's my fifth week at the Post. Before work, I go to my precinct to vote. My voting place is in a retirement home. The poll worker hands me a rectangular card. I walk over to the voting booth and squint at the directions. Apparently, I am supposed to slide the card into the slot, but first make sure to line it up on the red tab thingies. Then I am supposed to take the pointy-pen thingy and punch out the holes. Boy, this is a weird way to vote, but I'm new in town, so what do I know? Plus, I'm late for work, so I have to hustle. Soon after, I hear on my car radio that the ballot confused some voters. I know it confused me.
Happily, I am not scheduled to work election night. Instead, I am glad to head home to watch the drama unfold on television, thinking I will go to bed early. HA! Like the rest of America, I am up until all hours.
When I wake up, I know the day will be nutty. I head to the courthouse and start getting calls from editors. They are in hyperdrive mode and tell me they hear an election lawsuit will be filed. I stake out the civil court office and sit on a plastic chair, eyeballing everyone. Most of the clerks know me by now and are only slightly irritated that I am waiting there.
After lunch, I see three men in mustard colored suits come to the counter. They all have flip phones, which keep ringing. This can only mean one thing: Lawyers!
I look up at the clerk with a raised eyebrow. He nods his head, ever so slightly. Yes, he is telling me silently, they are filing an election lawsuit. The lawyers finish at the counter and I chase them into the hallway. Boy, are they surprised. Henry Handler, an attorney for three Palm Beach voters, takes me to the courthouse law library and makes me a copy of the lawsuit. It is the first to be filed.
For a few minutes, I am the only reporter who knows about the lawsuit. I call my editor and then have the irrational fear that I will be mugged and someone will steal my bag containing the suit. That night, it is surreal to see Handler and the news about the lawsuit on CNN every half hour.
Things really start to explode. Reporters are arriving from all over the country. I am concentrating on not getting scooped on my own beat, in my own town. I run between the Palm Beach County Courthouse, where several more lawsuits are filed, and the U.S. District Court, where a hearing is set for the afternoon. (It turns out to be a bust.) Reporters are there from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and numerous television stations.
At the Elections Office, protesters are chanting on the street and Jesse Jackson is about to show up. I zoom across the street to the county courthouse when we hear that another set of lawyers is asking for an emergency injunction to halt certification of the vote results. Around 8 p.m., the judge grants the injunction.
It is Sunday, and I am working the 3 p.m. to midnight cop shift. All kinds of people are working who normally wouldn't be, and everybody looks a little groggy. The scanner crackles with a report of a double shooting in a so-so area near a new downtown shopping center. An editor comes by and asks me to make sure that it wasn't a ballot counter or reporter who has been shot. The call turns out to be a prank.
I am now beginning to obsess about my vote. I did not go back and check to make sure all the chad were punched out, and now the thought is making me mental.
There were some donuts in the office, but all the good ones were eaten by the time I got in, and the only one left had pink frosting. Ick.
I am eating French fries for dinner and getting ready to write two stories. Today, I was not a nice person, but I was a good reporter.
There was a hearing set for 4 p.m. at the Palm Beach County Courthouse. I get to the courtroom at 2 p.m. and sit inside, staking out a spot. The bailiffs make me and the other reporters leave. I pull up a chair right outside the door. When other media and lawyers start showing up, I stand next to the door. Then packs of lawyers arrive, maybe thirty in all, and they get in the courtroom since they are representing the numerous plaintiffs and defendants, including Al Gore and George W. Bush. We in the throng push closer. The bailiff yells at us to move back. Nobody wants to. He makes us.
Suddenly, somehow, I am at the back of the line. Aiiiiieee! I have been there all afternoon. I am from the hometown paper! I must get in! They shut the door. They open the door and let a few more people inside. I squeeze my way in, using techniques perfected at crowded rock concerts at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
The hearing is interesting because Handler, the lawyer, asks the judge to recuse himself. Handler has an affidavit from a lawyer who claims the judge cast aspersions on Democrats in general and on Hillary Clinton in particular. The judge angrily denies making the comments but bows out of the case anyway.
Lawsuit, lawsuit, who's got the lawsuit? Five judges all recuse themselves from the election cases. The civil clerk's office is bedlam, with dozens of reporters elbowing up to the counter, trying to get copies of paperwork. As soon as one judge is named to the cases, reporters start taking bets on when he or she bows out.
The chief judge sets a hearing for 1 p.m. Despite my efforts, I do not get in the courtroom and am shunted to the courthouse cafeteria, which is wired for sound and has a television monitor. But it is hard to hear the interplay. All around me, reporters' cell phones are ringing while others say "Shhhhhh!"
Judge Jorge Labarga passes through the cafeteria on his way to the judges' elevator. On television, Chief Judge Walter Colbath Jr. is saying how he will assign the case momentarily to the next judge in the rotation as soon as the judge gets back from lunch. What Labarga doesn't know is that judge is him! The only benefit to watching the hearing from the crowded cafeteria is that I actually can eat lunch tuna on three lettuce leaves in a cup.
Another media madhouse outside Courtroom 4-D in the Palm Beach County Courthouse. Some of us try to form an orderly line, but other reporters and lawyers cut right up front. Once again, I try to get in and am exiled to the cafeteria. Labarga rules that the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board should not exclude the dimpled ballots and must at least consider them.
For lunch, tuna in a cup again.
Miraculously, there are no court hearings today. I follow other stories. Today is the best day for food ever! It is Employee Recognition Day and the publisher throws a party in the company cafeteria, which includes sushi, filet mignon and petits fours! Unfortunately, I only can manage to scarf down a few petits fours before running back to the courthouse at 5 p.m. to check lawsuits. The total is now up to 13 election lawsuits in Palm Beach County alone.
Labarga holds a hearing on the constitutionality of having a re-vote in Palm Beach County. I decide to skip the niceties and cut in line before the hearing so I can chat with a reporter friend. When it comes time to shove toward the courtroom door, a reporter behind me rats me out to the bailiff! In turn, I try to rat out another reporter who I've seen cut in line all week. Instead, I am sent to the end of the line but actually manage to get in the courtroom since the media throng is a little less thick today.
More tuna for lunch at the courthouse cafeteria. I ponder eating a hot dog from the cart across the street but decide against it.
Labarga releases his decision that a re-vote would be unconstitutional. One of the court administrators brings the stack of documents to the law library to distribute to the media. The press swarms him, grabbing for the 17-page ruling. I guess a 30-second scoop on a jargon-filled legal ruling means the difference to some television crews.
I finally get time after work to shop for my holiday turkey. Of course, my editor beeps me just as I get to the frozen food aisle.
Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch is in court today to argue for time to examine the ballots. Labarga grants his request. I actually get in the courtroom after one of the court administrators sneaks me in the back door. I guess my whining and glaring at him for a solid week must have worked. But who knows for how long.
The lawyers for the Democrats want Labarga to clarify his ruling on the dimpled chad. The hearing is a long one, with Mr. Fidgety Reporter sitting next to me on the packed courtroom bench.
Labarga releases his ruling at 4:30 p.m. This time, a sheriff's deputy brings down the stack of copies. The media throng is slightly better behaved, although I do get clunked in the head with a camera as I reach for my copy. Another 12-hour day. All memories of food eaten are erased from my head.
It's Thanksgiving and I am making turkey and mashed potatoes. Bliss. I watch television with my mother, and we hear that this election dispute may go on and on and on.
At least I am stocked up with turkey for lunch.
I get up early to work the 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday shift. The day before, there was a monsoon-like rainstorm that dumped six inches of water over West Palm Beach and my apartment complex specifically. Per usual, the parking lot floods the water is thigh deep. On Sunday morning, I rush to my car, open the door and spy thousands of spiders! I scream and start killing them. Oh, there are swarms of ants, too. I kill as many as possible (they are even on the seat and seat belt) and drive to the nearest 7-Eleven. I buy a large can of Raid and continue killing. I drive the rest of the way to work with my windows rolled down so I don't choke on poisonous fumes, while I swat the remaining bugs on the dashboard with an umbrella.
I am so frazzled when I arrive at work that I lock my keys in the car. Of course, I don't discover this until lunchtime and have to call AAA. Later, I realize that my battery is dead and I have to get a jump. After all that, I head to the Palm Beach County Courthouse to attend a prayer vigil sponsored by several Baptist churches. One woman wearing a fetching mauve pillbox hat grabs the megaphone and leads everyone in singing "This Little Light of Mine.'' They also sing "We Shall Overcome'' and other songs while they pray for the ballot counters, the U.S. Supreme Court and the candidates. It's quite moving.
At home, I make a turkey potpie with all my Thanksgiving leftovers. While cooking, I listen to CNN as Katherine Harris gets ready to certify the vote. I hear her say she will not accept the Palm Beach County results because they aren't complete.
Another court hearing, another media horde. This one surprises me though, since I am usually the only reporter at the 4th District Court of Appeal when I pick up rulings. Today, there are 50 or so reporters, probably because it's the only game in town now that the counting is done.
It is starting to feel normal to see a crowd of reporters every day as I go about my beat. I know a lot of them by face, if not name. There are also a bunch of new faces from news organizations around the country. Some of them seem quite confused. They are asking questions at the lawyers' press conference that make the rest of us roll our eyes or shout out the answers ourselves.
Later, I do a story about the Florida Supreme Court, which has received more than 10,000 e-mails. The public information officer, Craig Waters, gets so many phone calls every day that his voice mailbox keeps filling up. Waters finally had to put a notice on the Web site, which says: "Please do not call the Court expecting to speak with a Justice about the election cases.''
Another early morning hearing in front of Labarga at the Palm Beach County Courthouse. But this time, there is no mob scene of reporters outside. I sail right into the courtroom and get a seat. Labarga hears from Democratic and Republican lawyers and Klayman of Judicial Watch. It turns out that at least some of the ballots will be leaving West Palm Beach for a trip to Tallahassee to become evidence in the election contest lawsuit. We are still facing stiff competition from other news organizations, including the New York Times, which has a team of reporters in Florida. But our staff continues to churn out numerous, detailed stories every day, and it is a proud feeling to be part of it. I am keenly aware that the tide of the Election Frenzy is swiftly moving north to Tallahassee and on to Washington, D.C. Maybe I will get home tonight before 8 p.m. Maybe I will have a chance to do my laundry. And maybe I can finally eat a decent lunch! Yes, there is a good chance of that today.
GRAPHIC: Photo, Journalists and protesters surround the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board November 14 as it meets in West Palm Beach, Florida.; ap/wide world photos