The federal judge in the Elian Gonzalez case yesterday advanced by two weeks the six-week timetable he had set Thursday for hearing a crucial element of the case and ordered attorneys for the child's great-uncle to stop discussing the matter out of court.
"I get home last night and turn on the television to watch the evening news and I find counsel talking about how bad the government is," U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler chastised attorney Spencer Eig. In public statements Thursday, Eig criticized government lawyers, saying among other things that they had "chutzpah."
"I'm not interested in all the hoopla that's taking place on the streets . . . all the excesses," Hoeveler said in a hearing yesterday afternoon. Since the INS ordered that shipwreck victim Elian be reunited with his father in Cuba early this month, Cuban Americans in Miami have held frequent street demonstrations and kept vigil outside Lazaro Gonzalez's Little Havana home, where the boy is staying.
Hoeveler also objected to what he said were media implications that he had purposely delayed hearing the case to give Congress time to intervene over Elian's future. "I have no interest in what's going on in family court, Congress, or anywhere else," he said.
In a lawsuit filed Jan. 19, Lazaro Gonzalez alleged that Attorney General Janet Reno and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner had violated Elian's constitutional rights by refusing to consider political asylum petitions he filed on Elian's behalf. Arguing that federal courts had no jurisdiction to review the ruling, the government asked Hoeveler to dismiss the suit. If not, the government argued, Hoeveler should find that only Elian's father has legal standing to request asylum for the boy.
Although Hoeveler originally scheduled a hearing for March 6, he said yesterday he would consider the jurisdictional question on Feb. 22, a timetable he said would give both sides adequate time to prepare. "This event has to have a legal termination at some time," he said. Justice Department and INS officials said last night they were uncertain whether a federal finding in their favor on the jurisdictional issue would make the rest of the Miami case moot.
Opponents of the INS ruling have launched two other avenues of attack. On Jan. 10, a Florida family judge awarded Lazaro Gonzalez temporary custody of Elian, on the grounds that it would be abusive to send him back to Cuba, and set a March 6 hearing date. Reno has said the state court decision has no bearing on the INS ruling.
Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to make Elian a U.S. citizen, which would effectively remove him from INS control. Although the Republican leadership has backed both bills, bipartisan opposition to them has grown and their chances of success are uncertain. Senior GOP officials have indicated they may wait for a court decision before deciding whether to bring the bills to a vote. Elian's grandmothers yesterday continued efforts on Capitol Hill to plead for his return and indicated they will resume their campaign next week.
Meanwhile, the Catholic college president who on Wednesday hosted the grandmothers' Miami reunion with Elian, Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, said in Washington yesterday that she had decided the boy should stay in this country. Saying that she had seen "fear" of Cuban government officials on the faces of the grandmothers as they left her home, and that she believed Havana had "manipulated" the reunion, O'Laughlin said she now supports the citizenship bill introduced by Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.).
Reno, who held a private meeting with O'Laughlin, said afterward that while she had listened to O'Laughlin's "feelings, observations and conclusions, . . . I continue to believe, based on all the information available to me, including the information that Sister Jeanne shared with me, that the person who speaks for this child is his one surviving parent--his father." INS officials noted that a trained asylum officer had been on the scene, and said they believe O'Laughlin "misconstrued" the women's fear of the large crowd of Cuban American demonstrators and media surrounding the house.
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.