A week ago, Leon County circuit court judge N. Sanders Sauls was going about his business, hearing domestic-violence cases in nearby Wakulla County, when a computer randomly assigned him a colossal headache: the presidential-election contest that has since brought the eyes of the world into Sauls' courtroom. When reporters started scrambling to profile him, the judge didn't even have a resume to give them. Instead, he handed out a list of friends who could vouch for him. Among his hunting buddies: Dexter Douglass, the courtly Floridian who is one of Gore's lead lawyers. Douglass says he gets no breaks in Sauls' courtroom, and so far that has been true. The legal arguments of the lawyers may be as well tailored as their suits, but the judge doesn't seem impressed. One team wants to slow the pace; the other is desperate to move things along. Both have flooded Sauls with reams of emergency motions. "It's a little bit like getting nibbled to death by a duck," he says.
A plainspoken, sharp-witted man who uses his folksiness as a shield, Sauls, 59, may prove to be the most important jurist in the legal feud over the presidency. On Saturday he listened to nine hours of argument and testimony. Bush lawyers cross-examined Gore's only two witnesses for what seemed an eternity. The slow-moving Republicans then presented two of their 20 witnesses before Sauls recessed for the day. He will rule whether Gore would have won Florida's coveted electoral votes if 14,000 undervoted ballots had been properly counted by hand. But the thought of being the one who actually does the counting caused the judge to sigh during a hearing last week. "Do you have a magnifying glass?" he quipped. "I need stronger glasses." Says Richard McFarlain, former general counsel for the Florida Republican Party: "He's a lot of fun to be around. But when you're in court with him, let him crack the first joke."
Sauls was raised in Florida's Panhandle; his father was a court clerk, his mother a tax collector. In high school, he was "most likely to succeed," "friendliest" and "most intellectual." After graduating from F.S.U. and then the University of Florida's law school, he worked as a prosecutor and a federal bankruptcy judge before being appointed to the circuit court in 1989 by Republican Governor Bob Martinez. Two events shaped Sauls' life: the 1993 death of his 16-year-old daughter in a car accident, and a local scandal in 1998, when the state supreme court removed him as the circuit's chief judge for his "continuing disruption in the administration of justice." He had been accused of playing favorites and unfairly firing the local court administrator. He stayed on as a judge but kept a low profile--until now. Sauls clearly relishes being a bane to both sides. "That is the best I can fashion," he says, "to be equally unfair." While nobody has asked him whom he supported in the election, records show that he did vote on Nov. 7. In fact, he voted absentee.