Elian Judges Seem Skeptical of Miami Kin's Case

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Judge J. L. Edmondson knew a lot of emotions rested on the Elian Gonzalez appeal hearing, so before donning his robe he warned the crowd gathered inside the Atlanta courtroom of two things: No outbursts of emotion would be tolerated; and the audience shouldn't impute opinions from the judges' questions, since justices often play devil's advocate when hearing an appeal. Still, there was little surprise that the Miami family appeared a little muted after the 90 minutes of oral argument. "I think they expected that their argument that a six-year-old can seek political asylum would have been more sympathetically received by the court," says TIME Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett from Atlanta. "Instead, it encountered more scrutiny and skepticism than they were prepared for. At the same time, though, two of the judges rattled the federal government by expressing serious concerns about the kinds of conditions Elian would grow up under in Cuba. Still, by the end Judge Edmondson indicated that he was yet to be convinced that the Justice Department somehow overstepped its discretionary powers in this case."

By contrast with the period before and immediately after Elian's removal from Miami, almost all the talking Thursday was done by lawyers. "The Miami family refrained entirely from talking to the media," says Padgett. "They appear to be very subdued." Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, stayed away from the proceedings entirely, and the six-year-old at the center of the whole affair spent the day with his Cuban playmates at a farm for exotic animals near the estate where they're sequestered. Although the justices vowed to quickly review the appeal, a ruling could still be weeks away. The losing side would then have 45 days to ask the full 12-judge panel of the 11th Circuit to hear the case, and if it refused they'd get a further 90 days to appeal to the Supreme Court. If the Miami family loses, however, it remains to be seen whether the judges will extend their order requiring that Elian remain in the U.S. If they win all the way to the highest court, of course, Elian will get an asylum hearing — which, as Judge Edmondson pointed out, is handled not by the courts, but by the INS.