Janet Reno huddled with her Justice Department lawyers yesterday over how to continue mangling the rights of Elian Gonzalez, but what she really wants is to find Elian's inner tube.
Miss Reno's bottom, like that of her chief deputy, the tough-talking Eric Holder, will glow in the dark for days following the blistering applied by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Miss Reno will need the inner tube. (Mr. Holder can sit on her lap).
Rarely has a federal court shown such contempt for the work of government lawyers, treating with disdain not only the Justice Department arguments, but the adducing of the facts.
Justice Department lawyers are notoriously arrogant, often mistaking the power and might of the government with its platoons of cops and agents with guns and tanks for muscle of their own. But they forgot their place when they suggested that the appeals court did not even have jurisdiction, that government lawyers have enough wisdom to make the rules without the hindrance of the law. Judges, who are equipped with abundant arrogance of their own, do not like to be accused of a lack of omnipotence.
The language of the decision of the appeals court panel - a Reagan appointee, a Bush appointee, and a black appointee of Bill Clinton - is a model of restraint. But occasionally, the judges could not restrain a note of sarcasm.
"This case is mainly about . . . the proper exercise of executive discretion," the court said, as if lecturing a particularly thick first-year law student. "Among other things, we must ultimately decide what Congress meant when it said: `Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States . . . irrespective of such alien's status, may apply for asylum . . . .' "
Not only does Elian have a right to apply for asylum, the court said, with a bow toward the dimbulbs at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), "it appears that he did so." Indeed, the court noted that Elian himself signed the petition, prepared by his uncle, with a 6-year-old's childish scrawl. The court heard what Bill Clinton and Janet Reno and the tone-deaf ciphers at the Justice Department and the INS could not hear or would not hear, the trusting cry of a child to hold on to a precious life in the land of the free that his mother died to give to him.
Elian's relatives in Miami have been battered and smeared in much of the media for their tenacity and determination in Elian's behalf. …