‘No timetable’ for decision from Florida court


Associated Press

Two unforgettable weeks after Election Day, George W. Bush and Al Gore sweated out a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court and manual recounts in three Democratic counties today as they waited to learn who will sit in the White House.

“There’s no timetable at the present time” for rendering an opinion, despite persistent rumors to the contrary, Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters told reporters clustered outside the building where legal arguments had unfolded on Monday.

Hundreds of miles to the south, the laborious manual recounting ground on in West Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, Gore hoping for enough votes to overtake his rival in the race for the White House.

Bush holds a lead of 930 votes, not including the recounts.

The Texas governor said nothing about the legal battle as he went to work at the governor’s office in Austin, accompanied by adviser Andy Card, his likely White House chief of staff if he wins. Asked about his Thanksgiving plans, Bush said, “I’m having dinner with my family.”

Ruling on one of several legal skirmishes away from the Supreme Court, Circuit Judge David Tobin refused today to set standards for ballot review in Miami-Dade County and rejected Republican requests to go into garbage cans in search of the punched-out paper from ballots.

“I’m not going to manage the minutiae of each ballot being counted,” he said. “That’s not my job.” The judge said it would be inappropriate to set standards while the issue is before the state Supreme Court.

Waters said he had no guidance on how swiftly the state’s highest court would rule, although he said “we are putting in an extraordinary effort in this case.”

Presiding over 2 1/2hours of nationally televised legal arguments on the state’s contested election, Florida Chief Justice Charles T. Wells commented Monday on the gravity of the moment.

“The court is certainly aware of the historic nature of this session,” he said. The justices are “aware that this is a matter of utmost and vital importance to our nation, our state and our world.”

There was no disputing that, given that the winner of the battle for Florida’s 25 electoral votes, either the Republican governor of Texas or the Democratic vice president, stands to become the nation’s 43rd president on Jan. 20.

Neither Wells nor any of the other six high court justices gave any indication when the court might issue a ruling on whether to allow manual recounts from three counties to count in the final election totals. The Bush campaign hopes the court will snuff out the recounts, and the Gore campaign hopes the court will give them a legal imprimatur, and provide a standard for recount officials to employ.

The justices worked under one timetable as canvassing boards in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties labored on their own schedules to conduct the hand counts the Gore campaign wants.

Bush’s official lead stands at 930 votes in statewide results that Secretary of State Katherine Harris has been barred from certifying. Gore picked up 166 votes in manual recounts conducted Monday, which if accepted would reduce Bush’s margin to 764.

Gore hopes to overtake his rival in the three heavily Democratic counties where he has propelled the recounts forward.

When the counting stopped Monday evening the situation looked like this:

  • Miami-Dade County: With 67 of 614 precincts recounted, Gore had gained 46 votes over last week’s official vote totals.

  • Broward County: With 570 of 609 precincts recounted plus 168 absentee ballots, Gore had gained 117 votes.

  • Palm Beach County: With 103 of 531 precincts recounted by hand, Gore had gained three votes.

    Developments in the counting rooms bordered on chaotic at times, a sharp contrast to the crisp proceedings that Wells conducted in the high court in Tallahassee.

    There, all seven justices peppered lawyers with questions about a deadline in the state law for certifying results – the one Harris cited last week – as well as contradictory directives elsewhere in the law. There was discussion, as well, about a possible statewide recount, and about conflict between state law and federal statutes relating to the appointment of electors.

    Wells, in particular, asked lawyers how long the state had to certify a winner and still have its voice heard when the electors meet to pick a president.

    Democrats said Dec. 12 was the answer to Wells’ oft-asked question, six days before the Electoral College meets. The chief justice’s questions sketched a scenario in which recounts might continue, perhaps into December.

    At one point, Wells seemed to suggest that Harris might be permitted to certify a winner soon so Democrats would have time to challenge the next step in the process – appointment of the state’s electors – and still resolve the dispute before the Electoral College meets Dec. 18.

    Bush partisans seemed troubled by the implications of the questions asked in court, but Gore advisers expressed frustration by their relatively small gains in the county recounts.

    Broward County elections supervisor Jane Carroll, the only Republican on the three-member board, announced plans to retire at day’s end. “I feel like I’m incarcerated,” said the 70-year-old veteran local official, “with lunch and dinner brought into me and six attorneys sitting across from me the entire day.”

    Circuit Judge Robert Rosenberg, an appointee of GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, was named to the canvassing board to replace her.

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