TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Al Gore suffered two devastating defeats yesterday at the hands of both the U.S. Supreme Court and a Florida court that rejected every aspect of the vice president’s lawsuit to overturn the victory of George W. Bush.
The vice president’s lawyers appealed the decision by Judge N. Sanders Sauls in the Leon County Circuit Court to the Florida Supreme Court in less than an hour. Gore lawyers persuaded a Florida state appeals court to send the case directly to the Florida Supreme Court last night.
Mr. Gore’s men discounted the significance of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which was announced at noon, but few could find a silver lining in the decision five hours later by Judge Sauls, a Democrat.
Said Paul Begala, a native Texan who is a former counselor to President Clinton and a frequent advocate for Mr. Gore: “Boy, Judge Sauls handed my team the biggest whippin’ since the Texas-Oklahoma game,” in which the Sooners hammered the Longhorns 63-14.
Republicans, heartened by the twin victories and increasingly confident that Mr. Gore is running out of both options and time, renewed their calls for the vice president to concede. Democrats on Capitol Hill vowed to stick by Mr. Gore until two final legal options are exhausted.
The first is to the Florida Supreme Court itself. The vice president wants the court to order an immediate recount of thousands of ballots from predominantly Democratic counties. But after yesterday’s chastening by the U.S. Supreme Court, the lower court is thought to be wary of ordering the relief Mr. Gore asks, and desperately needs.
Still, the Florida Supreme Court has asked both sides to submit briefs by 3 p.m. today on the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The other option is so sensitive that the vice president’s lawyers have disavowed it. Democrats in Seminole and Martin counties have filed lawsuits seeking the disqualification of thousands of absentee ballots, most of which by the plaintiffs’ own admission are untainted. They argue that Republicans illegally wrote in voter-identification numbers on applications for the absentee ballots.
If one or both of these cases gives Mr. Gore enough votes to overcome the Texas governor’s 537-vote lead, the vice president would then face the daunting task of getting the new number certified by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
Moreover, even if Mr. Gore prevailed against Mrs. Harris, the Florida Legislature, with a strong Republican majority in both houses, stands poised to restore the state’s 25 electors to Mr. Bush. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court expressly reaffirmed the state legislature’s constitutional prerogative to do so.
Mr. Gore nevertheless retained high hopes as late as yesterday afternoon for his lawsuit contesting the outcome of the election. But after a lengthy weekend trial, Judge Sauls delivered a crushing decision.
“The court finds that the plaintiffs have failed to carry the requisite burden of proof,” he concluded. “Plaintiffs shall take nothing by this action. And the defendants may go hence without delay.”
That was the judge’s formal way of summarizing his decisive rejection of all five pillars of the Gore lawsuit, which essentially had asked for certain votes to be counted and others to be thrown out in selected Florida counties.
Specifically, Mr. Gore had tried to demonstrate that outdated voting machines had prevented would-be supporters of the vice president from marking their ballots with sufficient clarity.
“Although the record shows voter error and/or less than total accuracy in regard to the punch-card voting devices utilized in Dade and Palm Beach counties which these counties have been aware of for many years these balloting and counting problems cannot support or effect any recounting necessity,” Judge Sauls said.
He added that Mr. Gore had not established “a reasonable probability that the statewide election result would be different” if the recounts went forward.
“It is not enough to show a reasonable possibility that election results could have been altered by such irregularities or inaccuracies,” Judge Sauls ruled.
“There is no credible statistical evidence and no other competent substantial evidence to establish by a preponderance a reasonable probability that the results of the statewide election in the state of Florida would be different from the result which has been certified by the state elections canvassing commission.
“The court further finds and concludes the evidence does not establish any illegality, dishonesty, gross negligence, improper influence, coercion or fraud in the balloting and counting processes.”
Mr. Gore had asked that Mrs. Harris accept the results of a partial hand recount of ballots in Miami-Dade County and a tardy recount of all ballots in Palm Beach County.
“There’s no authority under Florida law for certification of an incomplete, manual recount of a portion of or less than all ballots from any county by the state elections canvassing commission, nor authority to include any returns submitted past the deadline established by the Florida Supreme Court,” Judge Sauls said.
The vice president, while publicly praising the hard work of local election officials in Palm Beach County, had sued them for adopting an insufficiently liberal standard for counting questionable ballots. Specifically, Mr. Gore wanted credit for ballots in which voters had merely “dimpled” marked but not dislodged the “chad,” or tiny rectangles of paper next to his name.
“The Palm Beach Board properly exercised its discretion in its counting process,” Judge Sauls said.
At the same time, however, the judge said that vacillation by Palm Beach officials on vote-counting standards may have violated a federal law against changing election rules after the ballots are cast. The “standards were changed from the prior 1990 standards, perhaps contrary to” law.
The Gore team had also argued that the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board should not have voted against a countywide manual recount of ballots. The board conducted only a sample recount of one percent of its precincts before concluding there was insufficient time for a full tally.
“The Dade canvassing board did not abuse its discretion in any of its decisions in its review and recounting processes,” Judge Sauls said.
His ruling made no mention of claims by Democrats that Miami-Dade officials were intimidated by a “rioting” GOP “mob” into abandoning the full hand recount. Several Bush witnesses in the trial denied any such riot had occurred.
Finally, the Gore team had argued that Nassau County should revise its original machine count of ballots in order to award the vice president a net gain of 51 votes. The vote shift occurred when county officials accidentally omitted hundreds of Bush-leaning ballots from a machine recount the day after the election. Not even that was granted.
“The Nassau County Canvassing Board did not abuse its discretion in its certification of Nassau County’s voting results,” Judge Sauls said. “Such actions were not void or illegal.”
Gore lawyers who had earlier expressed confidence for a favorable decision said afterward that they had not expected one. They said it was always their expectation that the case would end at the Florida Supreme Court.
Specifically, the nation’s highest court unanimously ruled there was “considerable uncertainty as to the precise ground for the decision” by the Florida Supreme Court to extend the state’s certification deadline to accommodate hand recounts in selected Democratic counties.
The high court pointedly suggested that its state counterpart had failed to sufficiently adhere to both the U.S. Constitution and federal law. The justices implied that the lower court had erroneously relied on suffrage language in the state constitution to trump language in the U.S. Constitution’s granting state legislatures the right to select electors.
The U.S. Supreme Court also suggested the lower court had not sufficiently abided by the federal law against changing election rules after the votes are cast.
The high court issued an order to “vacate” or wipe from the books the lower court’s ruling, which was the only favorable court ruling Mr. Gore has won in his post-election struggle, now nearly a month old. The high court instructed the seven Florida justices all of whom were appointed by Democratic governors to try again to find a proper basis for their ruling.
Gore lawyers David Boies and Ron Klain discounted the importance of the ruling, calling it a “neutral” call for clarification. But Bush lawyers said it was a clear “win.”