Court Tosses Elian Hot Potato Back to Reno

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If Janet Reno seemed indecisive before, the latest court ruling on the fate of Elian Gonzalez may paralyze her altogether. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta issued an order Wednesday that Elian not be removed from the U.S. pending his Miami relatives' appeal in their bid to seek asylum for the boy. They declined, however, to rule on whether he should be handed over to his father. "The ruling leaves the immediate question of Elian's custody back in the hands of the Justice Department," says TIME Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett. "Reno is free to send marshals in to get the boy and reunite him with his father, but the court's decision may make it politically harder for her to order action because the Little Havana community believes it has won a big victory, and could become even more volatile if the feds try to remove Elian from Miami."

The ruling presents a major headache for Reno, who had hoped to fortify her resolve to reunite the boy and his father with a court order. With Juan Miguel Gonzalez having agreed to remain in the U.S. pending the outcome of the appeal, pressure will now mount on Reno to bring that to fruition. But the Miami relatives have insisted that won't happen unless Reno sends federal marshals through the throng around Lazaro's house to collect the boy. Reno has faced mounting criticism inside the Justice Department for the lack of follow-through on her threats to enforce the law. "Many officials at the Justice Department and FBI believe she's done infinitely more harm than good by her personal intervention in the case," says TIME Washington correspondent Elaine Shannon. "Negotiation 101 teaches that even if you don't intend to use force, you have to make your adversary believe that you will if he remains recalcitrant. It also teaches that the top decision maker never negotiates directly, because that removes the space for a negotiator to say 'I see your point but my boss won’t buy it.' By meeting with Lazaro Gonzalez to plead with him to turn over the boy, having announced in advance that she'd ruled out sending in marshals, she was essentially negotiating against herself."

If Reno does plan to order an early removal of Elian from his great-uncle's home, Thursday is her window of opportunity ahead of the Easter weekend. "But experienced negotiators also know that you don't move when the adrenaline is pumping, and the demonstrators around Lazaro's house will be braced for confrontation Thursday," says Shannon. "The feds are more likely to wait for fatigue to take its toll, and that's more likely to take this standoff into next week."