Circuit judge rules against Gore; appeal forthcoming

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls ruled today that Al Gore failed to prove that a hand recount of thousands of contested ballots would overturn George W. Bush’s certified lead in Florida’s presidential election.

"In conclusion, the court finds the plaintiffs (the vice president) have failed to carry the requisite burden of proof," Sauls said in a ruling he read from the bench — an opinion that Gore attorney David Boies immediately announced he would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Sauls’ ruling capped a day of suspenseful legal developments in the nation’s month-old election drama that involved the U.S. Supreme Court, the Florida Supreme Court, and finally, the trial court where the jurist with the southern drawl presided over a hurry-up trial.

Gore asked for a ruling overturning Bush’s certified 537-vote victory in Florida, and to order a manual recount of an estimated 14,000 ballots in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties. The vice president’s legal team also sought to change the official vote certification in Nassau County, although only 51 votes were involved there.

The Bush team argued there was no reason for the recount, and said the Texas governor had been certified properly by Secretary of State Katherine Harris, on the basis of tallies submitted by the canvassing boards in all 67 Florida counties.

As important as his ruling was, the safest prediction was that Sauls would not have the final word. Not only was the Gore side appealing to the State Supreme Court, but there was also the prospect of additional maneuvering, based on the ruling the U.S. Supreme Court issued earlier in the day.

The justices vacated an earlier state Supreme Court ruling that allowed partial manual recounts to go forward — to Gore’s benefit — and asked the state judges to explain more clearly the basis for their decision. The state Supreme Court quickly indicated it would comply.

The ruling by Sauls followed a weekend trail that stretched out for more than 20 hours over two days, including testimony from 15 witnesses and arguments by numerous lawyers.

Gore lawyer Boies had argued Sunday that he believed "the law is clear" that hand recounts must begin in key areas where the Democrats believe hundreds of legitimate Gore votes were missed.

"In a close election, a manual recount is the only way to be sure how certain contested ballots should be counted," said Boies, who represented the U.S. government in seeking the breakup of Microsoft Corp.

He urged Sauls to ensure that 14,000 disputed ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties are counted.

Lawyer Barry Richard, representing Bush, said the Gore team was "light years away" from proving the kind of electoral errors the law requires before a judge can order a courthouse count.

"Voter confusion, voter mistakes, is not enough," he said. "The voter has some obligation to do it right," he said.

Joseph Klock, a lawyer for Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who certified the vote a week ago in Bush’s favor, said the legislature never wanted "one lone circuit court judge in Tallahassee to look through all of the ballots" and choose the next president.

Democrats were racing against a Dec. 12 deadline for certifying Florida electors, and Gore lawyer Dexter Douglass said at the time of the filing, "This case will be determinative in all probability of the election."

Gore wanted the court to examine ballots and order recounts in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties and to add a recounted total in Nassau County that would give Gore 52 more votes. In that case, the county reverted to reporting its initial postelection total instead of a machine recount because some 200 ballots were inadvertently left out of the recount.

Just as the trial began Saturday, Bush’s legal team went on the offensive, filing papers demanding that any recount ordered by Sauls be expanded to include all votes cast in two counties where the vice president benefitted from recanvasses performed in the days shortly after the election.

The complaint alleged that political bias had infected hand recounts in Volusia and Broward counties. Gore, who requested the recounts, gained more than 600 votes in Broward’s recount, and 98 votes in Volusia.

The GOP filing also effectively sought to bypass a lawsuit challenging the certified vote in Republican-leaning Seminole County by asking Sauls to certify totals reported there as "legal and proper."

The judge had also ordered the impounding of an additional 1.2 million ballots in Volusia, Broward and Pinellas counties after the Bush campaign claimed there were illegal votes in those counties for Gore.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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