High court steps in

By WALTER MEARS

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court entered the bitter overtime struggle for the White House on Friday, agreeing to consider George W. Bush’s appeal against the hand recounting of ballots in Florida, the state that will decide whether he or Al Gore becomes president. But first, on Sunday, Florida’s secretary of state plans to certify a winner.

At this point, Bush leads an incredibly close count. His unofficial margin as of early Friday evening was 675 votes.

The recounting went on into the holiday weekend, a wearing process that could be moot should the Supreme Court decide not to include the hand tallying of ballots originally cast in voting machines.

These striking turns in the disputed election mean that the longest, closest contest in 124 years may not be settled before early December, nearly a month after Americans voted.

The court will hear arguments on Friday from lawyers for Democrat Gore, who wants the recounts, and Republican Bush, who barely led the original vote and initial recounting of the voting machine totals.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican and Bush campaigner, announced earlier Friday that she would certify the winner of the state’s decisive 25 electoral votes sometime after 6 p.m. on Sunday. Her office said after the Supreme Court intervention that she was going ahead with her certification. On Nov. 17, the date she said state law set for certification, Bush led Gore by 930 votes.

Her new timetable was in keeping with the decision of the Florida Supreme Court, which set a deadline of 5 p.m. EST Sunday for final returns and said counties must have hand recounted ballots ready by then.

It was the unanimous state court ruling that the Bush campaign challenged, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear, ordering both sides to file legal briefs by Tuesday, for 90 minutes of arguments before the justices at 10 a.m. Friday.

It promises a scene like none before in American history, with the nine justices of the judicial branch of government considering a case that could determine which of two men will lead the executive branch for the next four years.

The recounting was continuing in two heavily Democratic counties, Broward and Palm Beach, where Gore expected gains, with a separate court dispute in which Republicans are demanding that disallowed military ballots from abroad be included, presumably to the benefit of their candidate.

The court’s intercession in a state election dispute was a direct hit on Gore’s struggle to overturn Bush’s infinitesimal edge, in a state where about 6 million votes for president were cast on Nov. 7.

“The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted,” the Supreme Court said, announcing it will hear the appeal.

But there is another track for challenge, since Florida law permits either candidate to challenge the certification of the outcome, and both campaigns have said they are prepared to do so if they believe votes their side should have had were improperly invalidated.

“The Department of State is prepared for the earliest contingency, which would be certification Sunday evening,” Ben McKay, chief of staff for the secretary of state, said. “This will be done publicly regardless of the outcome, which is, of course, unknown at this time.”

While the Supreme Court accepted one Bush appeal, it rejected another, in which he tried to win reversal of a federal judge’s decision to permit the recounts to continue. The practical impact seemed to be the same, since the appeal it is hearing deals with the question of whether recounted ballots are to be included through Nov. 26, or the outcome as of Nov. 17 is to be deemed final.

The court set up a breakneck schedule for next week: legal briefs are due on Tuesday and responses Thursday, then the in-person arguments before the justices on Friday morning.

Nothing the court did affected Harris’ decision to go ahead with certification. The 25 electoral votes at stake would push either Bush or Gore past the 270 it takes to make a president.

While the court acted in Washington, canvassers sifted contested ballots, a Tallahassee court heard arguments on disallowed military votes, and Democrats accused Republicans of sending paid demonstrators to try to intimidate election officials.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, stepped out of Gore’s residence to denounce demonstrations he said had been orchestrated by Republicans “to intimidate and to prevent a simple count of votes from going forward …

“This is a time to honor the rule of law, not surrender to the rule of the mob,” Lieberman said.

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

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