Supreme Court Rules for Bush

.c The Associated Press


WASHINGTON (AP) - A U.S. Supreme Court as divided as the nation's voters ruled for George W. Bush in the Florida presidential election case Tuesday night, reversing a state court decision that had ordered new recounts sought by Al Gore.

In an extraordinary late-night decision that unfolded on national television, the justices said the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court violated equal rights and there was not enough time to conduct a new effort that would meet constitutional muster.

``Because it is evident that any recount seeking to meet the Dec. 12 date will be unconstitutional ... we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering the recount to proceed,'' the court said.

The campaigns, Bush and Gore alike, were poring over the complex and detailed ruling, which came five weeks to the day after the presidential election. Florida's 25 electoral votes would decide the winner.

On Monday, Gore's Democratic running mate, Joseph Lieberman, had said that if the Supreme Court ``basically overrules the Florida Supreme Court ... that's probably the end of it.''

Gore lawyer Laurence Tribe told NBC-TV he disagreed with the decision, but ``I think the courts' place in our lives is such that we all should rally around even if we disagree with the results.''

The court's unsigned opinion said seven justices agreed that there were constitutional problems with the recount ordered by the Florida court, but that they disagreed on the remedy.

``It is obvious that the recount cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirements of equal protection and due process without substantial additional work,'' the court said.

But the majority said that because Florida lawmakers intended in effect to complete the choosing of electors by Dec. 12 an order requiring a new recount ``could not be part of an appropriate'' remedy.

The court issued its ruling in an unsigned opinion. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas went further in a separate opinion, saying the Florida Supreme Court also violated the Constitution and federal law in ordering the recount.

In a blistering dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens called the Bush legal appeal a ``federal assault'' on the laws of the state of Florida.

``Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today's decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law,'' Stevens wrote in a dissent joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Also dissenting was Justice David Souter.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy did not sign any separate opinion, but their votes were counted in the main unsigned opinion.

Without a recount, the certification of Bush as the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes - and thus the presidency - would stand.

In Florida, meanwhile, the state House approved a resolution that would send the Bush electors to the Electoral College if he lost in the high court.

``The 2000 presidential election is spiraling out of control and we must stop it now,'' Republican Rep. Paula Dockery said during a heated debate in Tallahassee over GOP plans to select electors loyal to Bush. The Florida House passed the resolution, 79-41, and the Senate moved toward a possible vote on Wednesday.

A few blocks away, Gore's options were reduced further when the Florida Supreme Court refused to disqualify thousands of absentee votes, many of them for Bush. Democratic attorneys had challenged the ballot applications, and Gore had expressed sympathy with the case.

The ruling meant the U.S. Supreme Court was Gore's last stand.

``It's down to game, set and perhaps match,'' said Bush ally Bill Owens, the Republican governor of Colorado.

About 100 demonstrators gathered outside the nation's high court in Washington, carrying signs and often arguing among themselves. Even the Man of Steel didn't think the wait was so super; Scott LoBaido of New York, dressed as Superman, lugged a two-sided sign proclaiming this was ``The End'' and it was time to say ``Good Night, Al. The Party Is Over.''

Tuesday was a deadline of sorts for states to certify their presidential electors, but both sides were focused on Dec. 18, when the Electoral College will cast its presidential votes, and on an early January deadline for Congress to count them. Florida's 25 votes would put either man over 270, the total needed to become America's 43rd president.

Bush was in Texas and Gore in Washington as the justices considered the vice president's appeal to restart the manual recounts that had been ordered last Friday by the Florida Supreme Court. In a split decision, the nation's high court had stopped the counting Saturday pending arguments and a ruling this week.

Both presidents-in-waiting tinkered with contingency plans, not knowing whether best- or worst-case scenarios would be needed.

Affirming the state Supreme Court would jeopardize Bush's razor-thin lead in Florida. Without recounts, Gore's presidential campaign would end, advisers said.

If Bush won in the Supreme Court, aides said, the Texas governor would keep appointments on a slow track, proceeding first with a series of actions to show the country he could heal divisions created by the marathon election.

He would be likely to deliver a high-minded unifying speech, then meet with congressional leaders, including Democrats, and perhaps President Clinton before making public his transition plans, advisers said.

Nerves were frayed on both sides.

Gore's advisers heard rumors at midmorning that a ruling was imminent. The gossip was reported as fact to the vice president before aides realized it was wrong. A senior Bush adviser said Tuesday was the longest day of his life; it was not quite noon at the time.

AP-NY-12-12-00 2246EST

Florida High Court.: Absentee Ballots Should Count

By VICKIE CHACHERE
.c The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Dec. 12) - In twin victories for George W. Bush, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that 25,000 absentee ballots challenged in two Florida counties should count in the state's contested presidential election.

In a pair of 6-0 opinions, the justices upheld the rulings of two state judges, both of whom had said the ballots should count even though local election officials permitted Republican activists to add information to the ballot applications.

The effect of the rulings was to validate votes which - if discarded - could have let Al Gore overtake Bush in the state that stands to pick the next president.

The court's ruling also cleared away the last significant challenges the Democrats have short of the pivotal case before the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the justices toiled to fashion a ruling on Gore's bid to resume manual recounts of thousands of questionable ballots.

In the Seminole County case, where more than 15,000 absentee ballots were challenged, the court said it found ''competent, substantial evidence to support the trial court's conclusion that the evidence in this case does not support a finding of fraud, gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing in connection with any absentee ballots.''

The court did agree that Seminole's elections supervisor erred by rejecting completely the absentee ballot applications in question and then compounded the problem by letting Republicans correct omissions on the forms.

''The court does not in any sense condone the irregularities found by the trial court,'' Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said, reading from a statement on the steps of the high court.

Waters added that in the Martin County case, in which 10,000 absentee ballots were challenged, there were also irregularities, but they, too, did not reach ''the level of fraud or intentional misconduct.''

Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr. recused himself from both rulings for reasons that Waters did not specify.

Bush attorney Barry Richard welcomed the decisions. ''It clearly ends it - no place to go from here,'' he said.

Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway tried to put a positive spin on the result, saying that resolution of the case removes some ammunition the Bush camp has used against Gore as it pushes the Florida Legislature to pass a resolution making sure the state's 25 electoral votes were pledged to Bush.

''The Bush supporters in the Legislature were using these cases as a fig leaf to cover their attempt to overturn the results of the election. That fig leaf has now been stripped away,'' he said.

Democrats had sought to throw out 25,000 votes in the two counties, alleging that Republicans were unfairly permitted to correct ballot applications while Democrats were not given the same opportunity.

But two Leon County Circuit Court judges refused, finding that election officials did not intentionally seek to help one political party rather than another and that the voters should not be punished by having their votes discarded.

Gore, who has insisted that every vote must be counted, was not a party to either lawsuit.

The state Supreme Court ruling came after both sides submitted written arguments Monday.

In the arguments, Democratic lawyers pared back their demands, seeking to disqualify only 673 Bush votes in Martin County, still enough to overturn Bush's lead of fewer than 200 votes. In Seminole County, they still wanted to eliminate 15,000 votes.

''You're always disappointed when you lose a case but there's some solace in the fact that they did find serious irregularities,'' Edward Stafman, lawyer for Martin County voters, said after the ruling.

Lawyers in yet a third absentee ballot case were hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would hear their appeal in the case of 2,400 overseas ballots that arrived in election offices after Election Day, most of them from military personnel.

Bush received 1,575 votes of the contested ballots, compared with 836 for Gore, so throwing them out would boost Gore's total.

The voters claim federal law and the U.S. Constitution require all ballots to be received by the close of the polls on Election Day.

Florida law, however, allows for ballots mailed by Election Day as long as they are received within 10 days of the election.

A federal judge ruled against the voters last week, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld that ruling.

AP-NY-12-12-00 1755EST

Florida House Approves Bush Electors

By LARRY MARGASAK
.c The Associated Press


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Dec. 12) - The Republican-run Florida House on Tuesday approved 25 electors pledged to George W. Bush, acting even as the U.S. Supreme Court deliberated the fates of the GOP presidential candidate and Democratic rival Al Gore.

The vote was 79-41 as Republicans easily muscled their resolution through the House and set the stage for a historic Senate session on Wednesday. Two Democrats voted with Republicans.

While the Senate is Republican by a 25-15 margin its president, John McKay, would not be pinned down on when the chamber would vote. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Lee emerged from an evening meeting with McKay commenting ''the train is headed'' toward a Senate vote on Wednesday.

House Speaker Tom Feeney said immediately after the vote on the contentious issue, ''I would hope that the United States Supreme Court may render moot what we did today.''

''I hope the Senate does not render moot what we did today.''

The House acted, approving a resolution expressing the desire of lawmakers, as the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices pondered a resumption of the ballot recounts that Gore believes will give him enough votes to overtake Bush in Florida, and thus win the presidency. The measure does not require the signature of Gov. Jeb Bush, the candidate's younger brother.

''The 2000 election is spiraling out of control and we must stop it now,'' said Republican Rep. Paula Dockery, urging colleagues to affirm the Bush electors previously certified by the state.

During five hours of debate, the House earlier defeated a Democratic resolution calling on the Legislature to stay out of the disputed presidential election by the same 79-41 margin.

Republicans cited the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Florida law, court decisions and even a Johnny Carson character to justify their authority to act. In the end, though, it was their 77-43 majority that left Democrats unable to prevent the House from acting.

Florida's 25 electoral votes would give either Gore or Bush the presidency.

Democrats countered with stories of family members and historical figures who fought for the right to vote and would want their ballots to determine the state's electors.

''My grandparents came to this country crammed into tight ship quarters from Czarist Russia because they believed this was the country where their votes would be counted,'' said Rep. Eleanor Sobel.

The Legislature meets in a modern office building and members normally wander in and out of the chamber. This time they remained in their seats and listened. The galleries, however, were only about half full for the historic debate.

While Democrats accused Legislature of illegally substituting its will for that of the voters, Republicans complained that Bush was the victor on Nov. 7 and that it is wrong to use different standard to discern a voter's intent when recounting ballots by hand.

''Maybe we need Johnny Carson's 'Carnac' to hold the ballot up to his head and discern the intent of the voter,'' said Republican Rep. Nancy Argenziano. She referred to the character who would hold an envelope to his head and predict the answers to questions inside.

''The bottom line is the rules keep changing,'' she said.

At times the debate moved from the Constitution to politics.

Rep. Ken Gottlieb, a Democrat, said ''The only thing missing is a smoke-filled room. The special session is about accomplishing one goal and one goal only - to ensure that George W. Bush is the next president of the United States. This is brass knuckles partisan politics at its very worst.''

But Republican Rep. Carlos Lacasa asserted, ''Partisan politics is democracy in action. Rather than hiding from my partisanship, I will use it like a beacon to guide me in this vote.''

Republican Rep. Johnnie Byrd said there was a ''yearning for finality'' in the country and to do nothing would be to shirk responsibility.

''I want to be a member of the do-something party,'' he said.

Rep. Lois Frankel, the House Democratic leader, said, ''For us to go forward with this message today ... will set a dangerous precedent which could lead to other states doing the same.''

Rep. Dan Gelber, a freshman Democrat, added that passage of the measure would ''disenfranchise every single voter who went to the polls on Nov. 7.''

''Think about the problems that will happen if just merely the presence of litigation allows the Legislature to hijack an election,'' Gelber said.

One of the two Democratic defectors, Rep. Will Kendrick, said he voted with the Republicans to ''do the right thing for the people we represent.''

AP-NY-12-12-00 1832EST