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Court names Franken as winner, but is race over?

Minn. State Capitol Bureau A happy Al Franken talks to reporters Monday after a three-judge panel ruled that he won last year's U.S. Senate election in Minnesota. However, Norm Coleman says he will appeal the ruling.

ST. PAUL -- Al Franken won the U.S. Senate race and should be sent to Washington, a Minnesota three-judge panel ruled Monday evening, but Norm Coleman plans to appeal the decision.

The ruling follows a seven-week trial on a lawsuit Coleman brought after a statewide recount left him trailing Franken.

Coleman pledged to appeal the loss to the state Supreme Court. And there is a good chance the loser at that level will appeal to the U.S. courts, meaning it still may be months before a new senator is seated.

A Coleman attorney said an appeal is needed in order to make sure every valid vote is counted.

The Franken campaign planned to announce its reaction later Monday night.

The ruling said the election did not violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, as Coleman had claimed. It also indicated the election was fair and that each county properly adopted ballot counting rules, even if the 87 counties did not follow the same exact procedure.

"Election officials exercised reasonable discretion within the confines of Minnesota election law and under a comprehensive, statewide training program in determining whether a voter met the statutory requirement of absentee voting," the judges wrote in a 68-page ruling.

The major dispute in the trial, which included seven weeks of testimony, was whether thousands of absentee ballots that had been rejected in the Nov. 4 election should have been counted. In the end, the judges decided fewer than 400 previously uncounted ballots should be tallied.

About 300,000 Minnesotans voted absentee and the Coleman camp asked that nearly 5,000 of the rejected ballots be counted.

Democrat Franken won by 312 votes over Republican Coleman, whose first Senate term ended Jan. 3, leaving Minnesota with just one senator in Washington.

Coleman tried to get the most ballots counted possible, giving him a chance to overcome a 225-vote deficit. Most of the votes the judges allowed to be counted went to Franken.

The case drew interest from well outside of Minnesota. Republicans want to delay the race's outcome as long as possible to they can keep Democrats a vote down in the Senate. Coleman has received much financial support from Republicans across the country.

Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg left no doubt about the pending appeal.

"More than 4,400 Minnesotans remain wrongly disenfranchised by this court's order," he said in a statement issued shortly after the judges released their ruling. "The court's ruling tonight is consistent with how they've ruled throughout this case but inconsistent with the Minnesota tradition of enfranchising voters.

"This order ignores the reality of what happened in the counties and cities on election day in terms of counting the votes. By its own terms, the court has included votes it has found to be 'illegal' in the contest to remain included in the final counts from Election Day, and equal protection and due process concerns have been ignored. For these reasons, we must appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court so that no voter is left behind."While the race is being decided, Democrat Amy Klobuchar remains Minnesota's sole federal senator. He has reported her office's workload has increased since the Coleman staff was forced to close shop.

On Nov. 18, the state Canvassing Board showed Colman led Franken 1,211,565 to 1,211,359. However, after the statewide hand recount of each of the 2.9 million ballots, the board ruled on Jan. 5 -- two days after Coleman's term expired -- that Franken won by 225 votes.

Coleman challenged the recount in court, leading to the lengthy trial, which began Jan. 26.

During the trial, a parade of would-be voters took to the witness stand, each claiming he thought his vote should count. The voters' absentee ballots had been rejected for reasons such as elections officials could not find their registration or that signatures in two places on the absentee applications did not match.

Coleman entered the trial saying that 4,797 absentee ballots were improperly rejected and should be counted. In the end, the court ordered fewer than 400 to be counted.

The Coleman campaign put witnesses on the stand for 26 days, the Franken side for eight days. The judges heard from 142 witnesses, including 69 voters. The rest were state and local elections officials. The two sides gave the judges 1,717 exhibits.

In the meantime, the state Supreme Court has ruled that no election certificate could be forthcoming until the appeals process ends.

Coleman led Franken after the Nov. 4 election and entered a statewide recount of 2.9 million ballots on top. The recount ended with Franken leading by 225 votes, and Coleman filed his election lawsuit.

Coleman's appeal, which must be filed within 10 days of the judges' final decision in the trial, would delay the winner receiving a signed election certificate.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said law prohibits him from signing an election certificate until any state-level appeals are resolved. The certificate originates in his office, but Secretary of State Mark Ritchie also must sign the certificate. Ritchie also refused to sign a certificate until the race is decided.

Obtaining a signed election certificate is a crucial step toward being seated in the Senate.

Judges who have spent most of this year hearing the case are Kurt Marben, Denise Reilly and Elizabeth Hayden.

The judges ordered that Coleman pay at least some of Franken's legal fees, which are in the millions of dollars. It was not clear how much the Coleman campaign would have to pay.