Florida Supreme Court Hears Gore Challenge

By DAVID ESPO
.c The Associated Press

(Dec. 7) -- Al Gore's lawyers pleaded with the Florida Supreme Court today to order a new round of manual recounts that could revive the vice president's fading quest for the White House. George W. Bush looked to the state's justices to finally count his rival out.

''I represent the vice president and Sen. Lieberman,'' said David Boies in the opening moments of an hourlong hearing, but that was all he could say before Chief Justice Charles T. Wells cut him off and began asking questions.

The stakes could hardly have been higher as Boies rose to speak one tumultuous month after Election Day.

The vice president is hoping to overturn a trial judge's ruling earlier in the week that refused to order manual recounts, and left unmolested Bush's certified 537-vote margin of victory in the state that stands to pick the next president.

''Good morning and welcome once again to the Florida Supreme Court,'' Wells said shortly after he and the six other justices filed into the neoclassical courtroom. That was a passing reference to arguments little more than two weeks ago in the same place.

''Now is the last chance for a legal judgment to be rendered in this case,'' Gore's lawyers argued in papers filed Wednesday on the eve of formal arguments before the state's high court in Tallahassee, Fla.

That was fine with Bush, certified the winner in Florida by 537 votes and eagerly looking forward to a presidential transition and inauguration. ''It seems like all the different court suits are working their way to finality and hopefully we can get this over with quickly,'' he said.

There were other subplots in America's riveting election drama, including an announcement that the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature would meet in special session to appoint its own slate of electors.

But nothing captured the national uncertainty better than a ceremony marking the beginning of work on the stands outside the Capitol in Washington where the next president will deliver his inaugural address.

''Hopefully, we will have the answer of 'who' sometime soon,'' said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the committee in charge of inauguration arrangements.

The Florida Supreme Court set aside an hour for the two legal teams to argue their points - Gore's attorneys seeking to overturn a trial court ruling that let Bush's certified statewide victory stand, and the Texas governor hoping to sustain it.

The court set arguments on an unusually condensed timetable, a gesture to the overriding national importance of the issue and a Dec. 12 deadline for picking electors. It was only Monday when Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls rejected Gore's challenge to Bush's certified statewide victory and refused to order any recounts.

Even before Sauls' courtroom had cleared, Gore's lawyers rushed to file an appeal, and the state Supreme Court announced on Tuesday it would allow the lawyers to make their cases in public. Florida's high court will allow television cameras to broadcast the proceedings.

It was not clear when the state's justices would deal with another case, this one instructions from the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify a ruling last month that allowed manual recounts to proceed beyond a state-mandated deadline. As a result of that ruling, Gore cut Bush's lead by nearly 400 votes.

Bush was in Texas, the vice president in Washington, as their attorneys clashed for the prize of Florida's 25 electoral votes. The statewide winner of Florida stands to gain the White House and take the oath of office as the nation's 43rd president on Jan. 20.

The plan to summon the legislature into session drew sharp criticism from Democrats. ''The only thing missing on the proclamation is the post mark from Austin, Texas,'' charged Rep. Lois Frankel, leader of the House Democrats, referring to the Bush campaign.

Appearing this morning on NBC's ''Today'' show, she said ''it really saddens me to say that the legislature has now become the political arm of the Bush campaign. ... They are determined to make sure that George Bush wins this campaign at all costs.''

The GOP leaders, Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay, said they were acting to preserve the state's right to have its electors counted in the Electoral College on Dec. 18, and had not been pressured by Bush's campaign to act.

''Our sole responsibility will be to put forth a slate of electors that is untainted and ensures that Florida's 25 electoral votes count in this election, regardless for whom they voted, said McKay at a news conference.

He added, though, that his preference was for electors loyal to Bush, saying they should be appointed ''based upon the vote totals that were available on November 14, and equally important, on the laws that were in place as of the date of the election on November 7.''

House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, also appearing on the ''Today'' program this morning, said the legislature's decision to name a slate of electors for Bush is ''an insurance policy for the people of Florida.''

In other developments, there were parallel trials in two Florida courtrooms over lawsuits filed by Democrats seeking to have absentee ballots thrown out.

In one, Seminole County's elections supervisor, Sandra Goard, admitted in a deposition read aloud in court Wednesday that she had let Republican Party officials fill in voter ID numbers on absentee ballot applications - the first time she had done so for any party.

And in a largely symbolic ruling in a federal appeals court in Atlanta that denied Bush's bid to throw out the results of manual recounts already completed.

The Atlanta court ruled that since Bush was ahead before the recounts, and still ahead afterward, he had not suffered ''irreparable injury.''

At the same time, the judges did not rule on the constitutional claims advanced by the Texas governor, a point that Bush's lawyers stressed afterward.

Gore's aides seized on the ruling, saying it cleared the way for Florida's high court to decide the election by counting additional ballots requested by the vice president. ''We're very pleased that the court rejected the Bush campaign's effort to throw out hand counts,'' spokesman Doug Hattaway said.

The vice president's lawyers pressed the same point in their written arguments to the Florida Supreme Court.

''Unfortunately, the most important documents are the ones the trial judge refused to look at, even though he admitted them into evidence - the nearly 14,000 ballots now in the custody of this court,'' they wrote.

''In a few more days, only the judgment of history will be left to fall upon a system where deliberate obstruction has succeeded in achieving delay - and where further delays risk succeeding in handing democracy a defeat,'' the Gore team said.

Unsurprisingly, that wasn't how the Bush lawyers saw it.

''At no time in our nation's history has a presidential race been decided by an election contest in a court of law,'' they said in language that seemed not an invitation, but a word of caution.

AP-NY-12-07-00 1015EST

Florida Supreme Court Appears Skeptical of Gore

By DAVID ESPO
.c The Associated Press

(Dec. 7) -- Al Gore's lawyer pleaded with a seemingly skeptical Florida Supreme Court today to order selective manual recounts of ballots that could revive the vice president's fading quest for the White House. George W. Bush looked to the state's justices to finally count his rival out.

''We believe the ballots can be counted in the time available,'' Gore's lawyer, David Boies, said when Chief Justice Charles T. Wells noted the state's presidential electors must be picked by Dec. 12. ''Obviously time is getting very short.''

But lawyers for Bush and GOP Secretary of State Katherine Harris both said Gore was asking the state's highest court to exceed its legal powers.

Joseph Klock, representing Harris, said the court would have to ''create a pile of law'' to grant Gore's request.

''There is not a single shred of evidence to show that any voter was denied the right to vote,'' argued Bush's lawyer, Barry Richard, adding that the state's highest court has no business stepping in and overseeing recounts.

The vice president is hoping to overturn a trial judge's ruling earlier in the week that refused to order manual recounts, and left unmolested Bush's certified 537-vote margin of victory in the state that stands to pick the next president. Some Democrats have urged Gore to concede defeat if the court rejects his appeal, but the vice president declined to say so earlier in the week, and Boies left the door open ever so slightly for a continued struggle.

''As long as they decide this based on Florida election law, we've said from the beginning the Florida Supreme Court is the final arbiter of that, and we're going to accept that decision regardless of what that decision is,'' he said.

The justices provided no indication of how quickly they would rule, but in an earlier recount case, handed down a decision within 24 hours of hearing arguments.

There were other subplots in America's riveting election drama, including an announcement that the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature would meet in special session to appoint its own slate of electors, loyal to Bush.

A pair of trials wound down in state courts in which Democratic voters sought to have thousands of absentee ballots thrown out in two Florida counties. Gore wasn't a part of the proceedings, but has spoken favorably of the suits.

Still, one month after Election Day, most of the attention was focused on the state's highest court.

Gore and running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman watched on television at the vice president's residence as Boies argued their case. In Austin, Texas, Bush said he didn't watch the proceedings, though he was briefed immediately afterwards by James A. Baker III, his point man in Florida.

''We'll see what happens there,'' Bush said when asked by reporters how he thought his side had fared before the Florida Supreme Court.

Several of the court's seven justices - all appointed by Democratic governors - pressed Boies to explain why it would be proper to have manual recounts in some counties, but not statewide.

''I don't think there has ever been a suggestion under state law that you should have a recount where it was not requested,'' Boies replied.

Wells also observed that the courts could become involved ''only if there was substantial noncompliance with election laws,'' not merely when - as Gore alleges - some legitimate votes were left uncounted.

''I don't think that's what we're arguing,'' Boies said. He added it was ''undisputed that there are voter errors and machine errors'' that have affected the statewide count.

The statewide winner of Florida - and its 25 electoral votes - stands to gain the White House and take the oath of office as the nation's 43rd president on Jan. 20.

''I represent the vice president and Senator Lieberman,'' Boies said in the opening moments of a hearing than ran eight minutes over its allotted hour. But that was all he could say before Wells cut him off and pressed him to explain why the court - and not the Florida Legislature - should be settling the issue.

Wells began and ended the session with challenges to Boies to explain how the court should apply guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week. The high court sent a separate election case back to the Florida court with questions about the legal basis for the Florida court's Nov. 21 decision extending hand recounts.

At the start, Wells asked the relevance of a previous U.S. Supreme Court case governing appointment of presidential electors.

''My reading of that case is that the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the state Legislature has plenary power, full power, in respect to appointment of presidential electors, and that power cannot be eroded even by the state constitution,'' he said.

If that is so, Wells asked, does the appeals court have the power to resolve this kind of presidential election controversy?

Boies replied it did.

When his turn came to speak, Richard had scarcely introduced himself to the court when the justices began peppering him, too, with questions.

''This is nothing more than a garden variety appeal'' under state law, he said. ''I believe the circuit court is subject to appeal, but under a very limited fashion.''

But he said Gore's lawyers were requesting something the law didn't allow - essentially asking the state Supreme Court to assume the job of the trial court.

But Justice Harry Lee Anstead pressed Richard on whether Judge N. Sanders Sauls had reviewed any of the questionable ballots in three Florida counties. Richard said no ballots were looked at, because, he added, there was ''no basis to do that'' unless Sauls first ruled that Gore was entitled to some sort of recount.

The court heard arguments on an unusually condensed timetable, a gesture to the overriding national importance of the issue and a Dec. 12 deadline for picking electors. It was only Monday when Sauls rejected Gore's challenge to Bush's certified statewide victory and refused to order any recounts.

Even before Sauls' courtroom had cleared, Gore's lawyers rushed to file an appeal, and the state Supreme Court announced on Tuesday it would allow the lawyers to make their cases in public.

The plan to summon the Legislature into session drew sharp criticism from Democrats. ''The only thing missing on the proclamation is the postmark from Austin, Texas,'' charged Rep. Lois Frankel, leader of the House Democrats, referring to the Bush campaign.

The GOP leaders, Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay, said they were acting to preserve the state's right to have its electors counted in the Electoral College on Dec. 18, and had not been pressured by Bush's campaign to act.

McKay added, though, that his preference was for electors loyal to Bush, saying they should be appointed ''based upon the vote totals that were available on November 14, and equally important, on the laws that were in place as of the date of the election on November 7.''

AP-NY-12-07-00 1319EST

Lawyers Argue Cases Involving Military Ballots

By BILL KACZOR
.c The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Dec. 7) - Overseas ballots, mostly from military personnel, that arrived after the presidential election and were counted should now be rejected, Democrats argued before a federal judge Thursday in one of two related cases.

In the second case, plaintiffs sought the inclusion of other rejected absentee ballots.

Republican George W. Bush held a 2-to-1 edge over Democrat Al Gore among absentee ballots received up to 10 days after the Nov. 7 election. Losing them would be enough to wipe out Bush's certified 537-vote lead in Florida. His campaign has intervened in the case.

U.S. District Judge Maurice Paul decided Wednesday that the case is a matter for federal court rather than state court where individual Democrats initially filed two virtually identical lawsuits on the issue. Paul began hearing arguments Thursday on whether to disqualify more than 2,000 ballots.

In the other case, another federal judge in Pensacola had yet to rule on a request by the Republican Party and Bush's campaign for a declaratory judgment that could result in counting more than 600 overseas ballots rejected by election officials.

Some county canvassing boards did not count those ballots for reasons that include bearing a domestic rather than overseas postmark, or lacking any postmark or date to indicate when they were mailed. Other counties, however, accepted such ballots. U.S. District Judge Lacey Collier heard arguments Tuesday.

The Gore campaign is not a party to either case.

Plaintiffs challenging the 10-day rule in the case before Paul want all ballots received after the election rejected. They argue that state law requires all ballots to be in by the close of the polls on Election Day and provides no exception. They contend, therefore, that a rule in Florida's administrative code requiring the 10-day extension is illegal.

Lawyers for Bush, his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Secretary of State Katherine Harris were prepared to argue the 10-day rule has the force of federal law and preempts state law because it enforces a 1984 consent decree between the state and federal governments.

The rule calls for counting ballots mailed before or on Election Day and received up to 10 days after an election.

The decree resulted from complaints that Florida was violating a federal right of overseas citizens to vote because they did not have enough time to request, receive and return absentee ballots before Election Day.

That situation results because Florida's first and second primaries and general election are only a month apart from each other.

AP-NY-12-07-00 1420EST

Thousands of Votes at Stake in Absentee Ballot Challenges
Martin, Seminole County Trials Resume

By VICKIE CHACHERE
.c The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Dec. 7) - One attorney charged there was a ''sinister'' conspiracy to aid George W. Bush. A former CIA agent said he was just trying to help GOP voters. A county elections official said she let Republican operatives correct absentee ballot applications.

Two trials that could affect tens of thousands of presidential votes played out just blocks from where Florida's highest court heard legal arguments Thursday in the contested presidential election.

In Leon County Circuit Court, attorneys representing voters who alleged Republicans tampered with absentee ballot application forms asked judges to throw out as many as 25,000 absentee ballots from Seminole and Martin counties.

At issue in both cases is whether mistakes on absentee ballot request forms sent out by the Florida Republican Party in the waning days of the election were illegally corrected by state GOP officials when the mistakes were discovered.

''It was a sinister underground conspiracy'' to help Bush, said Edward Stafman, attorney for the Martin County challengers.

But Republican activists testified they did nothing wrong, saying they just were trying to correct mistakes their party made on the forms.

Attorneys for the counties and the Republicans are pleading with the judges to not throw out absentee votes. They argue that voters had no control over what was done and shouldn't be disenfranchised.

In the Seminole County case, Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Clark was to hear closing arguments Thursday afternoon. That was when closing arguments concluded in Martin County, and Judge Terry Lewis said he would rule by noon Friday.

Both trials were held back-to-back in the same courtroom. Testimony in the Seminole case finished after 13 hours Wednesday, then the Martin case began.

Bush won the absentee balloting by 4,797 votes in Seminole and by 2,815 votes in Martin, so throwing them out could place his 537-vote certified statewide lead in jeopardy.

Voter ID numbers were left off many applications through computer errors in Seminole County and incorrect numbers were placed on the forms in Martin County. Florida law says ballot applications may not be mailed out without the correct identification numbers.

In the Seminole County case, elections supervisor Sandra Goard admitted she allowed Republican officials to fill in the numbers and said it was the first time she had done so. ''I had never received a request for that to be done,'' she said. Democrats did not ask for the same accommodation, she added.

Goard also testified that Florida law did not give her the authority to allow party officials to fill in the numbers. But she said she allowed GOP official Michael Leach and a second man she has been unable to identify to fill in the numbers at the party's request. Democratic Party state chairman Bob Poe later called to protest her actions, but Poe did not request the same opportunity to correct applications for Democrats, she said.

Goard did not appear in court Wednesday. Her previous deposition testimony was read aloud instead.

In the Martin County case, county GOP official Tom Hauck was asked on the stand whether he would acknowledge ''walking out of the office'' of Republican elections supervisor Peggy Robbins ''with a stack of applications for absentee ballots.''

''On one occasion, that's right,'' Hauck replied, adding that he took the ballots to county Republican headquarters to fill in the numbers.

Thursday morning, Robbins started the day on the witness stand, testifying she thought she was doing the sensible thing when she let the Republicans fill in the numbers on the ballot applications.

''They had put the information on these cards. It seemed logical to let the people who had done it incorrectly to correct the problem,'' she said.

On Wednesday, Charles Kane, who testified he worked for the FBI and retired from the CIA in 1975, said nothing secretive nor sinister occurred.

''We had an obligation to them,'' he said of Republicans who had received the inaccurate ballot document. ''We had filled out their forms. We did not see this as altering. All we saw this as was correcting a problem caused by the Republican Party of Florida.''

Todd Schnick, the state Republican party's political director, testified that he did not remember key elements of the ballot form glitches, which occurred in the last weeks of the presidential campaign.

In the Seminole County case, Democratic activist Harry Jacobs filed the challenge. Defense attorneys said Jacobs had raised $50,000 for Democrat Al Gore's campaign and provided other assistance.

Gore is not officially a party in either lawsuit.

AP-NY-12-07-00 1256EST

Florida Legislature To Hold Special Session

By DAVID ROYSE
.c The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Dec. 7) - It's been 132 years since the Florida Legislature got this involved in presidential politics, but some things never change. The GOP majority wanted to send a Republican to the White House then and it does now.

The GOP leaders of the House and Senate have decided to convene a special session Friday to choose the state's 25 presidential electors. With solid Republican majorities in both chambers, the aim is to declare George W. Bush the winner in Florida if Al Gore still is mounting legal challenges next Tuesday, the deadline for states to name their electors.

Florida lawmakers last got involved in a presidential election in 1868, naming a slate of electors for Ulysses S. Grant. The Union general was the choice of Republicans in Florida's Reconstruction-era Legislature over Democrat Horatio Seymour and became the nation's 18th president.

Democrats said calling a special session now is a mistake of historical proportions.

''We have just witnessed a proclamation of the ultimate partisan act,'' House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel said Wednesday after the special session was called. ''Six million Floridians went to the polls to vote, and this action is a blatant attempt to go around the will of those voters.''

Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney jointly called the session. They insisted the move was only to keep the state's votes from being discounted when the Electoral College chooses a president Dec. 18.

''I believe deeply ... that we have a duty to protect Florida's participation in the Electoral College,'' Feeney said.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush already has signed a certified slate of Republican electors for his brother, based on the 537-vote victory margin announced last month by the GOP secretary of state. If the courts invalidate that slate because of Gore's pending legal actions, the Legislature could use the session to override with a Bush slate.

In an interview Thursday on NBC's ''Today'' show, Frankel said:
''We had a lawful election. Six million voters went to the polls on Nov. 7. Mr. Bush has had his electors certified to Washington. Until and unless a court would overturn that by allowing a recount and if Mr. Gore should have the most votes, then his electors would be certified. ... This Legislature has now become the political arm of the George Bush campaign. They are predetermined that George Bush wins this election at all costs.''

Countered House Majority Leader Mike Fasano: ''It's an insurance policy for the people of the state of Florida. ... There's a very good chance that if we continue with court action after court action, the people won't be represented in the electoral process Dec. 18.''

Asked if she thought Jeb Bush was involved in the decision by Republican leaders to call the legislature into session, Frankel replied, ''It would be very naive that in a presidential election with so much at stake, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, that the George Bush campaign would not be orchestrating this.''

Feeney insisted the legislative leaders were acting without guidance from the Bush campaign, but he said, ''I haven't had any contact with any members of the Bush team probably since ... in a good 24 hours.'' McKay, the Senate leader, said he hadn't talked to anyone in the Bush campaign since he met James A. Baker III three weeks ago.

Both chambers will start the session Friday, reading the text of a measure to choose the electors and naming committees to consider the measure. McKay said the lawmakers won't work over the weekend and that Senate committees would begin their work Monday.

McKay and Feeney both said they hope that by the time the Legislature is ready to take a vote next week the presidential election will have been decided in the courts and Bush declared the winner.

''If we find a way to do our duty without bringing this session to a close with a final vote, then I would be the most pleased man in Florida,'' Feeney said.

Wary of the political implications of stepping in, McKay said his chamber would take a deliberately slow approach and said a vote wouldn't be taken before next Wednesday.

Electors are supposed to be named by Dec. 12, but McKay said he interprets the law to say that if they are not named by that date, then the Legislature would be expected to act and would have until Dec. 18 to do so.

Gore's camp called the Legislature's move ''questionable and very disappointing.''

''It is very strange that on the eve of arguments to the Supreme Court Jeb Bush and the Republican Party would send such a strong partisan message,'' Democratic spokeswoman Jenny Backus said.

The state's Supreme Court, which has been the object of the Legislature's scorn in recent years because it has overturned several laws passed by the body, hears oral arguments Thursday. The court is being asked by Gore to set aside Bush's certified 537-vote victory and order the immediate counting of about 14,000 disputed ballots. The vice president's claim was rejected in a trial court Monday.

McKay said if Gore is victorious in court, the Legislature would be prepared to select electors for him.

''We're going to do our constitutional duty, we're not going to be hypocrites,'' he said. ''If it happens to come out for Gore and it requires us to act, then we'll act.''

AP-NY-12-07-00 0852EST

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