Elian: Now the Battle Goes to Federal Court

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Cuban boat boy Elian Gonzalez's fate will be settled in court, but not in the Florida family court that ruled in favor of his Miami relatives. Attorney General Janet Reno Wednesday dismissed Judge Rosa Rodriguez's ruling granting temporary custody of Elian to a local relative as irrelevant since the court had no jurisdiction in a federal matter. Reno informed lawyers for Elian's Miami relatives that they'd have to go to a federal courthouse to challenge the INS decision to reunite the boy with his father. The Florida Gonzalez family expressed disappointment, but said they would file suit in federal court on January 18. The INS has dropped its plan to return Elian to Cuba by Friday, allowing the matter to be first settled in court.

"Most legal experts believe the family court had no jurisdiction in this case, and many were surprised that Judge Rodriguez claimed jurisdiction," says TIME correspondent Viveca Novak. Adds TIME correspondent Adam Cohen, "There's a feeling that sometimes state courts are more beholden to the political system, and we've seen that in this case with questions over the judge's ties to people allied with the boy's family." It emerged Tuesday that a political activist who has acted as a spokesman for the boy's Miami relatives had also served as a political adviser to Judge Rodriguez during her 1998 election campaign. While Reno's decision starts the courtroom process higher up the judicial chain, the case could still potentially go all the way to the Supreme Court before Elian's fate is settled. "But this takes it out of the hands of a state court system where a judge potentially sympathetic to the Miami relatives could tie up the case for years," says Cohen. "The federal court system will resolve it as a matter of urgency given that a young boy's well-being is at stake."