- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

All sides in Florida's endless recount of presidential ballots agreed yesterday that the state Supreme Court is the best way to end the "musical courts" chaos.

They split along predictable party lines on how to make the music stop.

In her pursuit of an endgame, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, an elected Republican, filed an emergency request that justices combine 12 scattered lawsuits from around the state and enforce the state statute that would require such cases to go to circuit court in Tallahassee.

The high court last night refused to become involved, saying in a brief order that those issues are for trial courts to resolve.

In Atlanta, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear two disputes on the constitutionality of recounting by hand the ballots in Democratic strongholds without doing it everywhere.

The federal court the judges who ordered Elian Gonzalez returned to his father in Cuba is thought to be unlikely to pre-empt Florida courts on state issues, or even to consider any federal issues until state courts resolve the recount issues.

In a separate order last night, seven state justices said they would consider today what the trigger for such a recount is under Florida law.

Mrs. Harris and state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who split on the question in formal advisory opinions to Palm Beach County officials Tuesday, were ordered to file briefs justifying their stances by 9 a.m.

That order came before Mrs. Harris last night certified the results from all 67 counties, rejecting arguments from Palm Beach and other counties that sought to justify further recounts.

The campaigns of both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush were admitted to the Florida Supreme Court case and directed to file all briefs by noon today on that issue.

Mrs. Harris contended before the court early yesterday that combining all the cases ranging from standards for hand recounts to whether a new election would be constitutional would avoid "the spectacle of the judicial system in Florida running in myriad directions."

The head of Mr. Gore's legal platoon, Warren Christopher, said high court intervention offered a "quicker solution" but only if justices agreed to decide the many cases without further consideration and not just to wait for appeals.

Speaking for the Bush campaign, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III said the litigation has "run amok now."

"I would hope there would be a way to reach agreement on what ought to happen," Mr. Baker said.

The Texas governor's lawyers got to the state high court first, intervening to protect his 300-vote lead subject only to absentee ballots from overseas, not yet counted once.

"[These] issues could ultimately affect that result, with an enormous resulting impact upon the interests of Mr. Bush," said his two-paragraph motion filed by Tallahassee lawyer Barry Richard of Greenberg Traurig, a firm whose lawyers are veterans of Florida's political wars.

The situation changed so often that parties simply alerted justices to the changes, as when Palm Beach County notified the court that its vote canvassing board changed its mind yet again on whether to recount all the votes by hand.

Meanwhile, lawsuits multiplied faster than the lovebugs that famously splatter so many Florida windshields, provoking Judge Charles Burton, chairman of Palm Beach County's troubled canvassing board, to observe, "It almost seems to be musical courts. We're going from the next courtroom to the next courtroom to the next courtroom."

The growing legal snarl also included these decisions:

• Circuit Court Judge Jorge Labarga, who has described himself as a Bush partisan, said Palm Beach County Democrats may decide case by case when to count as a vote ballots that simply have a "dimple" rather than a full perforation.

• The same judge scheduled a hearing for tomorrow on whether it would be constitutional to grant voter demands for a new election in Palm Beach County. "It seems to me like the only time you can have another election is in 2004," Judge Labarga said.

The 12-judge federal appeals court didn't say when it would act but set a 7 a.m. deadline today for filings in one of two appeals to bar counting only Democratic strongholds. That case was brought by three voters from the Middle District of Florida. The court did not immediately announce a timetable for the Bush campaign's separate, but almost identical, appeal of a loss Monday in Miami federal court.

Although federal constitutional rights were invoked in the case appealed to Atlanta, most of the other court disputes involve interpreting and applying state law. State courts' decisions on such issues cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In turning to the state Supreme Court with an "emergency petition for extraordinary relief," Mrs. Harris said the 12 cases that she wants consolidated are a stalling "tactic" to circumvent the state's Elections Division and to produce inconsistent rulings.

Mrs. Harris insists that she, in addition to county authorities, should be a party to any ballot challenges.

Her response to the Palm Beach County case involving standards for recounting virtually accused the Florida Democratic Party of collusion with the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board by having a court produce a decision both agreed on.

In asking the court to apply its "all writs jurisdiction," Mrs. Harris said exercising that power would allow the high court "to consider and resolve all issues surrounding the Florida electoral process associated with [the presidential election]."

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, the jurisdiction of the Florida Supreme Court is so sharply limited that much of Florida's election case law was established by appeals courts, without Supreme Court review.

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