Florida Supreme Court blocks certification of vote

By DAVID ESPO

Associated Press

Florida’s contested presidential election was placed on hold today as the state Supreme Court forbade Secretary of State Katherine Harris from certifying a winner. George W. Bush’s lead inched higher as overseas ballots were counted, while Al Gore looked for gains from manual recounts in heavily Democratic counties.

In their unanimous late-afternoon order, the justices said they wanted to “maintain the status quo” in the state that will settle the race for the presidency. Harris, who had announced plans to certify a winner on Saturday, was told not to act “until further order” of the state’s highest court.

A hearing was set for Monday – a timetable that effectively will permit the manual recounts to grind on in Palm Beach and Broward County, where more than one million ballots are undergoing hand review.

Less than an hour after the high court acted, Gore stepped to the microphone set up outside the official vice president’s residence to say that neither he, Bush nor Harris “will be the arbiter of this election.

“This election is a matter that must be decided by the will of the people as expressed under the rule of law, law which has meaning as determined in Florida, now by the Florida Supreme Court.”

The legal development came as aides to the two presidential hopefuls maneuvered in a postelection campaign unlike any other.

Concerned that Harris’ certification would give Bush enough electoral votes to claim the presidency, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned that Democrats would “take steps to have her action set aside or reversed.”

“I hope that Governor Bush will not attach finality to the result, will not begin the partying, but will give the Florida Supreme Court an opportunity to act in the matter,” he said.

Republicans made plain they are eager to close out Gore’s challenge.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Bush and his team look forward to counting overseas ballots “so that the process of achieving a final result to the election in Florida is not subject to further delays.”

Bush was in Texas, the vice president in Washington as a bewildering series of events unfolded.

At mid-morning, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis issued a brief order that reaffirmed Florida Harris’ decision to discount the results of manual recounts in the areas around Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The recounts continued anyway.

That order held up fewer than seven hours, though, before the state supreme court stepped in “on its own motion.”

Early returns from overseas ballots gave Bush 141 votes and Gore 108. Democrats in Monroe County protested two of the votes allocated to the Texas governor, and other protests flared elsewhere in a race already studded with controversy.

Bush holds a 333-vote lead in the state that will decide the winner of the presidential election, including tabulation of overseas ballots from 32 counties. Harris is expected to certify a winner on Saturday – subject to yet another court challenge – once the overseas votes are in hand from all 67 counties.

Those totals do not include the returns from the disputed hand recounts sought by Democrats in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Those have given Gore an additional 34 votes so far.

The day’s developments – two court rulings; contested manual counts under way; and overseas ballot tabulation proceeding – were difficult to follow, impossible to predict.

But the result was easy to discern: 10 days after the nation voted, neither Gore nor Bush had an Electoral College majority, and there was no agreed-upon timetable for determining when a president-elect would emerge from the struggle.

A few hours after Lewis’ ruling, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said it was “premature to discuss” what the governor’s response would be if Harris certified him the statewide winner.

At present, she said, the winner is not known. “The good news is that by midnight tonight those votes will all be in and tomorrow morning we’ll all know and we won’t have to ask “if” anymore.

Cheney, appearing Thursday night on ABC’s PrimeTime Live,” was clear about the GOP ticket’s intention. He said he and Bush were prepared to declare victory Saturday if Florida certifies them as the winners of the state’s 25 electoral votes – even if hand counts are continuing.

Christopher and Gore attorney David Boies responded a few hours later for the vice president.

“We continue to believe that Secretary Harris was wrong to certify the election results before the recounts were completed,” Christopher said.

“To the extent that Judge Lewis’ decision today is contrary to that, we believe it incorrect, and we will be appealing it to the Supreme Court of Florida.” He said Gore’s legal team would seek a hearing and decision “at the earliest moment, tomorrow if possible.”

As for the possibility that Harris may certify Bush as the winner of the state’s electoral votes – enough to give him the presidency – Christopher added, “It would frustrate the will of the people of Florida.”

Both sides in the election contest assume that Bush will benefit when the overseas votes are counted, making Gore’s attempt to win recounts of more than one million ballots essential to his effort to overtake his rival.

Lewis’ court order, read by a court clerk and broadcast live nationally, was succinct.

Based on the “limited evidence presented, it appears that the secretary has exercised her reasoned judgment … applied them to the facts … and made her decision. My order requires nothing more,” it said.

In a brief statement, Harris said she would “continue to follow the election procedures provided by Florida law. She added, “we anticipate receiving the certifications of the overseas absentee ballots from all counties by noon tomorrow.”

Gore’s appeal marked the second election-related case in as many days to come before the state’s highest court, a sign that the nation’s postelection drama may be nearing a conclusion.

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

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