By DAVID ESPO
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A sharply divided Florida Supreme Court ordered manual recounts to begin immediately today in the state’s contested presidential election, breathing new life into Al Gore’s quest for the White House.
George W. Bush’s lawyers weighed their options for an appeal.
“Because time is of the essence, the recount shall commence immediately,” the court’s spokesman, Craig Waters, said in announcing the 4-3 opinion.
There was no immediate word on how many ballots were covered by the order.
By its opinion, the court also added 383 votes to Gore’s total from recounts already undertaken, apparently whittling Bush’s previous 537-vote margin.
“Two strikes, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and Gore gets a hit,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, one of the Democrats who had said in advance that an adverse ruling could spell the end of the vice president’s hopes.
Stung by the split opinion, Republican lawyers reviewed their options. One possibility was a two-pronged counterattack – asking a federal judge or the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for an emergency order to stop the recounting while asking the U.S. Supreme Court for a final ruling settling the election. Bush himself had suggested earlier that he would appeal an adverse ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court ruled as the Republican-controlled Legislature met in special session, ready to assure that Bush got the state’s disputed 25 electoral votes regardless of the outcome of the various court cases.
The ruling came little more than an hour after two trial court judges rejected a bid by Democrats to throw out 25,000 absentee ballots in Seminole and Martin Counties. The twin rulings were serious setbacks for the vice president, even though he was not a formal party to either lawsuit.
Circuit Court Judges Nikki Clark and Terry Lewis ruled jointly, saying that despite irregularities in ballot applications – the basis of the Democrats’ challenge – “neither the sanctity of the ballots nor the integrity of the elections has been compromised.”
In legal terms, the state high court’s ruling overturned an opinion issued Monday by Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls. Sauls had rejected Gore’s bid for selective manual recounts in a few counties.
It ordered a far broader recount than Gore had sought, however, saying that so-called undervotes – meaning ballots on which there was no vote for president – must be recounted in all 67 Florida counties “where such a recount has not yet occurred.
Recounts were completed earlier in Volusia and Broward counties, and the results incorporated into the results that Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified. A partial recount was completed in Miami-Dade County before the local canvassing board suspended its work. In addition, the Palm Beach County canvassing board completed a recount, but submitted the results after the deadline that Harris had been enforcing.
While the court ordered the recount to begin immediately, it was not clear where or how that would happen.
Waters, relaying the court’s opinion, said the votes were to be counted using the following standard:
“In tabulating what constitutes a legal vote, the standard to be used is the one provided by the legislature. A vote shall be counted where there is a clear indication of the intent of the voter.”
Across the street from the Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee, members of the Republican-controlled Legislature gathered in historic special session, and the GOP leadership pushed legislation assuring the prized electoral votes would go to Bush.
“The Legislature is convened for the sole and exclusive purpose” of making sure the state’s electoral votes count when the Electoral College meets on Dec. 18, read John Phelps, the clerk of the House, speaking before a packed chamber and a nationwide television audience. The legislation itself listed the electors by name – the ones picked by Bush when GOP Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified him the statewide winner last month by 537 votes.
The speaker of the Florida House, Tom Feeney, acknowledged he has received advice from Bush intermediaries but denied the campaign was calling the shots. Such allegations from Democrats were “out of touch” with reality, he said.
But the Bush campaign said its lawyers “provided legal interpretations when asked by legislators, and no one could be surprised by that. Nor would anyone be surprised if such contacts occurred between Democratic legislators and Gore lawyers,” said a spokesman, Tucker Eskew.
In a last-minute legal maneuver, Bush’s lawyers filed an unusual clarification with the Supreme Court, telling the seven justices they don’t have authority to grant Gore the manual recounts he seeks.
“This Court does not have authority to grant such relief under Florida law or federal law,” the Bush petition said, reversing comments Bush attorney Barry Richard made Thursday in oral arguments that the high court had “limited” jurisdiction.
Gore has been attempting to overturn Bush’s certified win in the courts, and win the manual recounting of thousands of ballots he says could reverse his rival’s lead. The winner of the state’s 25 electoral votes stands to take office in January as the nation’s 43rd president.
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