- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

FORT MYERS, Fla. Vice President Al Gore appears to have staked the presidency and his future political career on today's all-or-nothing legal strategy of attacking Florida's state government and its lower courts.
His legal briefs to Florida's seven Supreme Court justices each of whom reached the court with backing by Democratic governors did not appear to raise a federal issue that would allow appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court should his argument be rejected.
Instead, the vice president and his huge legal team pinned everything on the single question of whether Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris broke state laws by excluding late recounts from certified election totals, and by issuing binding opinions that ruled out hand recounts.
Mrs. Harris, a Republican who has been accused by Gore partisans of coloring her decisions, rejected Mr. Gore's efforts to get what she called "special consideration and multiple counts" for three heavily Democratic counties.
But she also offered the back of her hand to Mr. Bush's legal strategists.
"It is clear, that for the Democrats and the Republicans, the object is to win, and that is understandable. The stakes are very high," Mrs. Harris said, informing the court that the GOP was "not to be outdone" in its complaints about hand-count procedures and "the sanctity of the machine tabulation."
The secretary of state told the court yesterday that she followed state law to the letter and to the hour and asked the justices to uphold Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis' orders approving her key decisions and to clear the way for the state Elections Canvassing Commission to certify the final vote and award Florida's 25 electoral votes to Mr. Bush. That result would make him president.
"[We] respectfully request that this court affirm the orders of Judge Lewis, lift the temporary stay imposed by this court, and permit the commission to certify the votes of the people of Florida," Mrs. Harris said in papers filed yesterday by her attorneys.
The two-hour televised high court hearing at 2 p.m. could resolve issues that would decide almost two weeks after the election. The seven-judge state Supreme Court, all of whom were appointed by Democratic governors, is asked to go beyond the interim court orders issued so far, an order that seemed intended to preserve the status quo.
They allowed the manual counts to continue, but did not compel Mrs. Harris to include those late numbers in official totals that now show Mr. Bush leading Mr. Gore statewide by 930 votes, including overseas absentee ballots.
"The secretary of state has chosen repeatedly in at least five different ways to try to stop or delay the lawful manual recount of ballots," said Mr. Gore's legal filing.
Mr. Bush's response defended Mrs. Harris' actions in great detail and blamed the wholesale attack on her on the fact that Democrats were "disappointed" with those decisions.
"The unprecedented events that have brought us to this point are obviously of the highest public interest," said his brief to the state Supreme Court. "Extraordinary times call, however, for courts to adhere steadfastly to the rule of law."
Republicans have supported efforts to stop recounts in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. They attacked them in a federal court lawsuit contending that counting just those three Democratic counties would violate the U.S. Constitution requirements for "equal protection" and "due process."
A federal judge in Miami and a 12-judge appeals court in Atlanta refused to intervene, ruling that state courts had all the powers required to decide the issue and order any necessary remedies. The appeals court suggested that Mr. Bush might have grounds for an appeal later.
The Gore brief complained of five administrative actions by Mrs. Harris, including two approved by a lower court, the collective action by the state Elections Canvassing Commission, and a legal interpretation that was requested by the Palm Beach Canvassing Board.
That opinion, issued Nov. 13, said hand recounts were appropriate only when counting machines had mechanical failures or otherwise were incapable of the task. The following day, Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth, a Democrat who was an official of the Gore campaign in Florida, broke his own policy of deferring to Mrs. Harris' office on election law and issued an opinion challenging her interpretation as too narrow.
He supported Palm Beach officials who claimed that ballot confusion, and the failure by some voters to fully punch out their candidate's "chad," justified ballot-by-ballot examination by humans to determine voter intent.
Mr. Bush's attorneys took exactly the opposite tack, arguing that Mrs. Harris' opinion was correct and that she would have violated the election law had she extended last Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline for anything short of a hurricane or other natural disaster.
"Under the laws of Florida, there is no possible result here but for this court to affirm," the Bush brief said.
Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida's highest court does not have jurisdiction over every issue. Many controlling precedents in election law were handed down by intermediate appeals courts. Last week, the state Supreme Court asserted that trial court rulings were binding law.
Chief Justice Charles T. Wells, 61, is a lifelong Floridian who has been on the Supreme Court since 1984 and ascended to the chief justice's position this year. He is one of six justices chosen by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Other justices include the most recent appointee, Justice Peggy A. Quince, 52, whom Mr. Chiles chose shortly before his death, in co-operation with Jeb Bush, who had just been elected governor. Justice Quince, who earned her law degree at Catholic University in Washington, is one of the court's two black members.
Former Gov. Bob Graham, now the state's senior U.S. senator, appointed Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr., 70, in 1983.

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