Supreme Court suspends Florida vote count

By TERENCE HUNT

Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court ordered a temporary halt today in the Florida vote count on which Al Gore pinned his best hopes of winning the White House. Justice Antonin Scalia said the court’s 5-4 decision suggests George W. Bush stands a “substantial probability of success” next week in a case that could settle the presidency.

The court’s schism was the latest and most dramatic in a long season of political division. Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority “has acted unwisely” in cutting off the weekend Florida vote count which put Bush 177 votes ahead in an unofficial Associated Press count.

Bush heard of the ruling in a telephone call to his Texas ranch and was “very pleased,” an aide said.

It was a sharp setback to Gore who believed he could overtake Bush in Florida. The state’s 25 electoral votes will determine the 43rd president and end the deadlock from the Nov. 7 election.

Gore attorney David Boies expressed keen disappointment, speculating that if the counting were to go forward “it looks like Vice President Gore and Senator (Joseph) Lieberman would win the popular vote in Florida just like they won it outside of Florida.”

Gore was awarded a weekend recount Friday by the Florida Supreme Court, prompting a flood of Republican lawyers to press an appeal. They were unsuccessful at the state level and federal appellate levels before the U.S. Supreme Court intervened.

The court’s decision froze the examination of thousands of ballots in dozens of Florida counties just hours after it had started.

The high court ordered both sides to present oral arguments at 11 a.m. EST Monday on the underlying legal issues in recounting disputed ballots. Bush’s top attorney, James A. Baker III, noted that the court hadn’t ruled on any of these issues in halting the vote, but he took note of the remarks of Justice Scalia, one of the court’s most conservative justices, regarding the eventual result.

“It suffices to say that the issuance of the stay suggests that a majority of the court, while not deciding the issues presented, believe that the petitioner has a substantial probability of success,” wrote the justice in an unusual accompanying statement. The majority order itself was contained in one brief paragraph.

Outside the court, about 100 protesters gathered tonight, chanting “every vote counts” and “pro-choice, pro-Gore.” They were organized by a group that supports the right of women to have abortions.

The five votes to halt Florida’s weekend vote count came from Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O’Connor and Scalia. Stevens, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented.

Stevens, writing for the minority, said, “To stop the counting of legal votes, the majority today departs from” the precedents of judicial restraint.

Asked about Scalia’s prediction that Bush would prevail with the high court, Boies said, “Obviously we think the dissent had it better … ” Gore, during the campaign, had sharply faulted Scalia’s positions on abortion and affirmative action.

Robert Levy, a constitutional scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, said whatever sympathies Scalia may have, “it’s not clear those sympathies are shared to the same degree (by the other justices).”

He said there was no exaggerating the significance of the case. “If they vote in Bush’s favor, I think it’s quite clear they decide the election for Bush.” He added things would get complicated if the court rules for Gore and orders the vote count resumed.

Today’s decision was the latest turn in an election marathon of uncertainty and suspense.

Baker said Bush has been through an ordeal. “One day you’re up. One day you’re down,” he said.

Across Florida, election activity came to a halt.

“No need for us to go any further,” said Pam Iorio, supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County, one of dozens of counties involved in the recount effort.

“This is surreal,” said Republican attorney Jim Post in Duval County, where officials had been deliberating how to proceed. “This has been quite a roller coaster ride and I don’t think it’s over yet.”

Republican demonstrators, outside the vice president’s mansion, chanted, “Get out of Cheney’s house” and carried signs reading, “Notice of eviction” and “It’s over stupid.”

Gore attorney Ron Klain said the vice president was pleased with the recounts that were done and said they put the vice president on a path “to make up the difference and to pull ahead.” Spokesman Chris Lehane said the vice president looked forward to Monday’s hearing “because we are confident that our argument is based on the fundamental principle of one person, one vote.”

Before the court’s intervention, a still-ebullient Gore held a conference call with supporters. “Years from now, we’ll be telling our grandchildren about this,” he said. “You all will be able to take pride in the fact that, despite great pressure, you fought valiantly for our democratic values.”

Returning to the confusion of dimpled, swinging and hanging chads, election officials had been examining thousands of ballots where counting machines failed to register a vote for president. They operated under the watchful eye of Republican and Democratic observers and under a gag order imposed by the state judge who imposed a deadline of 2 p.m. Sunday.

Bush attorneys implored the courts to stop the process, arguing that the month-old ballots had “degraded” to the point of being untrustworthy. Gore lawyers said the “will of the voters” must be heard. The vice president holds a small but distinct lead in the nationwide popular vote and Democrats believe he will overtake Bush in Florida if the recount is completed.

Gore has a slight lead in the Electoral College but stalled short of the 270 vote majority. Bush will win the presidency if he holds Florida’s electoral votes, awarded to him two weeks ago when the secretary of state certified a state count. That prompted Gore’s successful challenge Friday before the divided state Supreme Court.

In Tallahassee, Florida’s Supreme Court held its ground today, refusing Bush’s appeal to stop the count. But that decision was negated by the Supreme Court ruling in Washington. The state court had split 4-3 Friday in ordering a new look at about 45,000 so-called undervotes.

Bush also took his case to a federal appeals court in Atlanta, which also refused a stay.

Bush running mate Dick Cheney took his wife to lunch and a movie, “Proof of Life,” and got word that the Supreme Court had acted when aides’ cellphones started going off in the theater.

Thirty-two days after the election, there was plenty of uncertainty in a race that had seemed likely to end Friday with a Bush victory. The court-ordered count resurrected Gore’s hopes and threw the race into uncharted political and legal territory that could make Congress the final arbiter of who will be the nation’s 43rd president.

Democrats and Republicans flooded into Florida to monitor the count and jockey for television time. Bush sent campaign chairman Don Evans and chief strategist Karl Rove to Tallahassee. President Clinton, at the White House, applauded the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The more people feel there was an accurate count, the more legitimacy will be conferred on whoever the eventual winner is,” he said.

New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, said that re-examining tens of thousands of votes “is certainly not just chaotic but completely wrong and it cries out for someone – and it has to be the federal courts – to say this is not right.”

Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile said Republicans were trying to “incite chaos … even before they get back to the counting.”

Gore spoke to three-dozen Democratic contributors and supporters and, according to an aide, he said, “a vote is not just a piece of paper, a punched card or a chad. It is a human voice and we must not let those voices be silenced – not for today, not for tomorrow, not for as long as this country stands for the principle that the people must be heard and heeded.”

Implementing the Florida Supreme Court’s order, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis had set a 2 p.m. Sunday deadline for completing the recount. that would have given the court time to certify Florida’s electors by Tuesday, the deadline for states to name the electoral slates.

However, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature also is prepared to vote by midweek on its own slate of electors, loyal to Bush. If Gore prevails in the state count, there could be two slates of electors, creating a constitutional clash where Congress – deeply divided itself – would be forced to pick.

At the start of the day, Bush led Gore by 193 votes statewide out of 6 million ballots cast. When the counting stopped, an unofficial AP tally put Bush’s lead at 177.

In Washington, Bush and Gore flooded the Supreme Court with motions. Bush’s lawyers filed an appeal Friday to stop the count, and Gore’s attorneys responded this morning. Bush lawyers returned to the court to answer Gore’s team.

“If this confusing, inconsistent and largely standardless process is not stayed pending this court’s review, the integrity of this presidential election could be seriously undermined,” Bush argued.

“Whatever tabulations result from his process will be incurable in the public consciousness and, once announced, cannot be retracted,” no matter how flawed, Bush lawyers said.

In reply, Gore’s lawyers said, “Their surprising assertion is that a candidate for public office can be irreparably harmed by the process of discerning and tabulating the will of the voters.”

Analysts in both camps said Gore stands to gain from scattered recounts. That’s because Democratic voters tend to live in areas using antiquated voting machines that misread the most ballots.

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

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