By ANNE GEARAN
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Supreme Court justices seemed anxious to find a way out of the state’s presidential election jam Monday that would let disputed manual recounts continue – as long as the delay wouldn’t jeopardize the state in the Electoral College vote.
The central questions hanging over the state election – should ballots be recounted? How? For how long? – landed in Florida’s high court nearly two weeks after the Nov. 7 vote.
There was no word on when a ruling might be expected, but some of the justices showed a sense of urgency to answer the questions, which are of paramount importance to Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush.
At a nationally televised hearing, the chief judge of the court, Charles T. Wells, repeatedly pressed both sides to predict how continued recounts would affect the Dec. 18 Electoral College vote.
“Tell me when Florida’s electoral vote would be in jeopardy,” Wells said to Bush lawyer Michael Carvin, a question he had earlier asked of Paul Hancock, attorney for the state’s Democratic attorney general.
Both sides said they were intent on having Florida’s vote counted.
The hearing dealt only peripherally with major issues that both sides have been fighting about so hard in other courts and in public statements.
In this case the court is being asked to rule whether the manual recounts requested by Democrats should continue, how the counts should be done and whether those results should be included in the final state tally.
After the hearing, Gore advisers said privately they were pleased by the tone of the justices’ questions and the fact that recounts could continue at least for now.
The Republican legal team expressed private concerns about what they perceived as tough questioning and pondered options that could include an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
The justices were vigorous questioners from the outset, none more so than Wells, the 61-year-old Democrat who presided.
Over and over, he asked at what point the state would risk missing the chance to cast its 25 electoral votes.
Both Bush and Gore need those 25 votes to win the White House.
Democrats said Dec. 12 was when Florida needed to have its results final, six days before the Electoral College meets. But Joe Klock, representing Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, said she was bound by a state law that required her to certify all ballots except for overseas absentees by seven days after the Nov. 7 election.
The justices ruled Friday that Harris could not yet certify a winner and that the recounts could continue – though taking no position on whether those recounts must eventually be included. The Gore campaign hopes the recounts will give the vice president the presidency.
Gore attorney David Boies asked the justices not to allow appointment of the electors yet, but added, “I’m not urging in any way that this court do anything that would imperil Florida’s electoral votes.”
Boies told the justices that if left alone, the three counties conducting recounts by hand could finish in a matter of days. Democrats accuse Harris, a Republican who campaigned for Bush, of delaying and confusing the counties as they tried to comply with their requests to recount.
Recounts are allowed under Florida law if a candidate asks for them within 72 hours and the local elections board agrees.
The state law is not clear on when those results are due, and much of the fight between Bush and Gore has been over whether Harris was right to impose a Nov. 14 deadline.
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