Leon Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls is officially a registered Democrat and was appointed to the bench by a Republican governor. But even to his closest acquaintances, Sauls' political preferences are a mystery.
"He's his own man, always has been and always will be," said Mallory Horne, a former Senate president and House speaker in Florida.
Sauls, the 59-year-old son of a court clerk who grew up in courthouses with a dream of becoming a judge, was picked in a random computer selection of the four trial judges in the state's 2nd Judicial Circuit.
Hours after his selection, he was holding court with attorneys for Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George Bush, living up to his reputation as a folksy jurist who likes to keep things moving.
"I think we all know what the deadline is here," he told the lawyers. "We need to get something going. ... They need to file their responses, is four days too long? Can you do it in three?"
At one point, he thanked a lawyer by drawling: "Bless you."
On Monday, Judge Sauls rejected Gore's bid for a hand recount of some 14,000 contested ballots cast in the Nov. 7 election. Sauls ruled that Democrat Gore failed to prove that a hand recount of the contested ballots would overturn Republican Bush's certified lead in the Sunshine State. Florida's 25 electoral votes will decide the next occupant of the White House.
Circuit judges run in nonpartisan elections, with all the judicial candidates on a single ballot without reference to party affiliation.
According to computerized state records, Sauls did not contribute to any federal or state candidates at least since 1996.
Horne, an ardent Democrat, suspected Sauls was a Republican, but former state Republican Party general counsel Richard McFarlain correctly believed the judge was a Democrat.
McFarlain, who is now general counsel at Florida State University, laughed when he recalls Sauls ruling against him on more than one occasion.
"He calls 'em like he sees 'em," McFarlain said. "He keeps the lawyers in line."
Judge Sauls grew up in neighboring Jefferson County where his mother was tax collector and his father a clerk of the circuit court. He went on to get his law degree from the University of Florida and served as a federal bankruptcy judge for eight years before being appointed to the circuit bench in 1989 by then-Gov. Bob Martinez, a Republican.
Sauls, who won election in the six-county circuit in 1990 and then was re-elected in 1996, spent some of his free time especially on Fridays at a popular local sports bar, the 4th Quarter.
In November 1998, Sauls resigned as chief judge after a controversy over hi decision to fire a longtime court administrator.
Sauls, who remained on the bench as a trial judge, had urged other circuit judges to fire longtime court administrator Tom Long, a liaison between the 2nd Circuit and Leon County government.
Long had questioned Sauls' decision to hire his own hand-picked director for the circuit's Guardian Ad Litem program rather than accept a search committee's choice. Sauls called Long "disloyal."
"He was openly insubordinate," Horne said, "and Sandy fired his butt."