-- Florida's infamous chads, those paragons of electoral chaos, can find their way into a tussle even when they are not hanging, pregnant or dimpled.

In fact, piles and piles of perfectly pristine chads are smack in the middle of the latest courtroom squabble to come out of the election that simply will not go away: the 2000 presidential contest. Gary Farmer -- a South Florida lawyer whose clients include none other than his mother-in-law -- is in a knock-down, drag-out scrap with Secretary of State Glenda Hood over what should be done with thousands of unused, surplus punch-card ballots from the 2000 election.

Farmer wants the ballots preserved, both as historical artifacts and as objects of study for conspiracy theorists who suspect faulty ballots may have been purposely distributed to areas with high concentrations of minority voters. Hood's elections office wants the unused ballots to be destroyed, saying they have no historical value.

Before Farmer came along, the Florida Division of Elections was routinely giving permission for county election supervisors to get rid of unused ballots. In Tampa, packs of unused ballots from the 2000 election were given away as souvenirs to anybody who wanted them or distributed as props to television cameramen, said Buddy Johnson, who became supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County in February.

The rest of Hillsborough's unused ballots -- likely numbering in the tens of thousands -- were sent off to a paper recycler by his predecessor, Johnson said, raising the eerie possibility that pieces of them could be floating around to play havoc with another election.

"You know, we could have trouble for years to come," Johnson said. "The spirit of chads."

The unused ballots from Highlands County, in central Florida, are less likely to materialize. The Highlands elections supervisor, Joe A. Campbell, made sure of that. He sent his unused ballots to the county landfill, and to make sure the ballots were gone forever, he had two employees stand watch as the landfill's bulldozer did its thing.

"They bury 'em over with all the other garbage," Campbell said.

It is just such a fate that Farmer is trying to avert in the 10 or so counties that he believes still may have punch cards from 2000. Among them, he said, are some of the epicenters of the 2000 election fight, including Palm Beach County, home of the now-legendary butterfly ballot, and of Farmer's mother-in-law, Beverly Rogers.

Rogers, a Democrat, believes that her vote might not have been counted because of the high percentage of spoiled ballots in Palm Beach County. The paper quality might have had something to do with the spoilage rate, Farmer said, and the only way to find out is to inspect the unused ballots. Could the paper have been too thin, he asked, or might it have been too thick?

Hood's office argued that keeping the unused ballots would be an expensive waste of space, especially now that supervisors are preparing for another presidential election in November. Farmer had an answer for that: Nova Southeastern University law school in Broward County is willing to pay for the ballots to be picked up and stored in its library.

He bolstered his argument with affidavits from a University of Florida history professor, Julian Pleasants, who attested to the possible value of the ballots "and almost anything you can think of" related to the election for future historians to study. Pleasants, who is writing a book called "Hanging Chads," pitched in for Farmer, even though he is skeptical about the lawyer's conspiracy theories.

"Historians and political junkies will be talking about this election for 200 years," he said.

But the arguments of Pleasants and the pledge from Nova to care for the ballots have not moved the secretary of state's office, which is being represented by the state attorney general's office in the lawsuit. In court papers, George Waas, special counsel to Attorney General Charles J. Crist Jr., called Farmer's arguments "self-serving emotionally charged rhetoric." Waas argued that the legislature gave Hood's office the right to approve the destruction of unused ballots.

"What is being hidden here?" Farmer wonders.

Nothing, said Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for Hood, who was out of town and could not be reached to comment.

"There's no historical significance in them," Nash said.

At this point, Hood has the upper hand. Leon County Circuit Judge L. Ralph "Bubba" Smith Jr. dismissed Farmer's lawsuit on Thursday, although he gave the lawyer 10 days to refine his arguments and take another crack. An appeal is almost certain, ensuring that the 2000 election will be on the minds of a lot of people in Florida while the campaigning gets hot and heavy for the 2004 election.

Constance Kaplan will watch to see how it all plays out. Kaplan, who became Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections in July, has about 100,000 unused presidential ballots from the 2000 election in an air-conditioned warehouse. Kaplan, a self-professed fan of election memorabilia, brought a souvenir with her from her old job at the elections office in Chicago, but she thinks she better leave it in the mover's box for now: It is a fishbowl full of Chicago chads.

During the 2000 recount in Florida, Judge Robert Rosenberg used a magnifying glass to determine the state of a chad on a ballot in Fort Lauderdale.