I'll Be the Judge:

As the trial opens today in a case in which plaintiffs charge Republican voting officials with illegally permitting GOP operatives to tamper with absentee voter applications in Seminole County, many observers are calling the case a dark horse that may crush George W. Bush's momentum. Presiding over the case is Judge Nikki Ann Clark, a five-foot-tall Democratic appointee who makes Republicans quake. If she rules against the Bush team, Clark could go so far as to throw out all of Republican-dominated Seminole County's 15,000 absentee ballots. If so, Gore would take a lead of several thousand votes in Florida.

The most nail-biting fact for Republicans is that on November 17 -- just two weeks ago -- Florida Governor Jeb Bush passed over Judge Clark for a position on an appellate court. Having slighted her, they fear her. Fearing her, they're trying to crush her.

Republicans have done everything in their power to get the case out of Judge Clark's courtroom. They tried to remove Clark from the case. In an affidavit, a defendant in the lawsuit charged, "It is my firm belief that Judge Clark will not provide a fair trial to the Republican Party and its nominees for president and vice president because Governor Jeb Bush did not appoint her to the First District judgeship." Clark disagreed, and an appellate court upheld her decision not to recuse herself.

Republicans tried to consolidate the absentee ballot case with the recount case before Judge N. Sanders Sauls -- a move that would have taken the case out of Clark's court. They also tried to get the case dismissed. When they didn't get their way, they asked for a jury trial. Clark rejected that request.

Unable to squash the case, Republicans have taken to trashing the judge. For example, The Los Angeles Times quoted a Bush advisor as saying, "Judge Nikki is a Democratic political operative. There's no way you're going to get a fair shake from her. She's worse than the Florida Supreme Court." In fact, it is Judge Clark who doesn't seem to be getting a fair shake from Republicans. Not only did this advisor refer to her by her first name -- a form of disrespect often reserved for women and African Americans in power -- but Bush's lawyers have been repeatedly dismissive of her actions.

"I think the judge is enjoying the case," attorney Irving Terrell told The Tampa Tribune, referring to Clark's refusal to consolidate the cases. "But before she has her one-day trial to decide the presidency, I think the court of appeals will want to be heard."

Conservative columnist Robert Novak confirmed that Bush lawyers loathe Clark. "They think she is very prejudiced against [Bush] and that is a very dangerous case and they're worried about reversing it in the Florida Supreme Court which has not been too friendly to the Bush cause," said Novak. Now perhaps Republicans can try to get Clark to recuse herself from the case because she can't give them a fair trial now that they've dissed her so much.

Judge Clark's liberal credentials are clear from her biography. Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles appointed Clark to the Leon County Circuit Court in 1993, making her the first African American and the first woman to sit on that circuit. She served as director of cabinet affairs for Chiles in 1993 as well as director of legislation and policy development for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection before that. From 1981 to 1991, Clark served as an assistant attorney general for Florida. Interestingly, however, Clark's sister is a Republican who served as former President George Bush's director of media relations.

The 48-year old Clark grew up in Detroit and attended Wayne State University there. She got her law degree from Florida State University in 1977. She has a daughter and a stepson -- and a reputation for not shying from tough cases.

Despite her Democratic reputation, Clark's rulings have not had any single ideological slant. Earlier this month, Clark made a moderately favorable ruling for Democrats in another case involving the presidential election. In that case, a Republican operative sued to strike down a law that only allows candidates or parties to ask for recounts. He argued that he wanted to ask for a recount in his own Republican-leaning county, but could not. And since the Republicans have refused to ask for hand recounts, only heavily Democratic counties have had hand counts. Clark refused to overturn the law.

On other legal matters, Judge Clark has ruled both for and against traditionally Democratic interests. This year, Clark refused to dismiss a case challenging the constitutionality of a tort reform law strongly supported by Governor Jeb Bush and other Republicans. On the other hand, Clark also dismissed a case brought by Florida's Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth. Butterworth charged that the drug store chain Rite-Aid over billed select customers. Since Butterworth may run for governor against Jeb Bush, a high profile victory in this case could have helped Democrats take back the governorship.

Regardless of Judge Clark's ruling tomorrow, two things are clear: The case will be appealed to the state's high court. And Republicans do not shy from biting the hand that holds the gavel.