By Munir K. Nasser
Chief Correspondent, Washington, DC
The eyes of the United States were focused on Florida's State Supreme Court on Monday, as it began hearings that will ultimately decide in a few days who will be the next president of the United States.
The Florida Supreme Court, six of whose seven justices are Democrats, has provided a crucial opportunity to serve as a legitimate and neutral referee, and to assess whether the manual vote recount currently underway in a few Florida counties will be allowed to continue.
Although the justices did not indicate how soon they might rule on the recount issue, it appeared that the court's decision could be announced within days.
The two-and-one-half hour session, broadcast live on national television, touched on a broad spectrum of issues - conflicts in Florida laws, worry that a long delay could nullify Florida's votes in the Electoral College, standards for recounts and fairness to voters whose ballots were not recounted.
The justices indicated by their questions that they were concerned about whether Florida could certify the correct totals for Texas Governor George W. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, in time for balloting by Electoral College delegates on December 18.
The arguments before the seven justices boiled down to the validity of the seven-day deadline to certify the results declared by the secretary of state, Katherine Harris, an elected Republican.
Lawyers for the Republicans stuck to their contention that the secretary of state, who is responsible for certifying election results, was bound by law to do so within seven days of the voting.
Lawyers for the Democratic parties to the case contended that the secretary of state had not acted within her rights when she set a deadline for certification that fell before manual recounts had ended. They argued that the justices had the authority to delay the final result to include recount results.
David Boies, an attorney for the Gore campaign, insisted that the state's high court has sufficient power to set a deadline for counties to complete their recounts. Boies assailed Republican arguments that the manual recounts are illegal and failed to meet a state-imposed deadline of seven days past the November 7 election, as declared by Katherine Harris.
Observers believe the manual vote recount is important because it could influence which candidate wins Florida. Since the state has 25 Electoral College votes, whoever wins those votes becomes the president-elect. Democrats, representing Al Gore, have argued the recounts should continue, while the Republicans, representing George Bush, said they should not.
Legal experts say this case is complicated for the Supreme Court justices because of apparent contradictory requirements written into Florida law. On one hand, county election boards are given broad power to count the votes and even "determine a voter's intent" when it is not clear at first glance. If these county officials find "an error in the vote tabulation that could affect the outcome of the election," the law says they "shall . . . manually recount all the ballots." Gore's lawyers rely on this provision in defending the hand recounts in the three counties.
But the law also says "returns must be filed by 5 p.m. on the seventh day following the . . . general election." If the secretary of state has not received the returns by then, "such returns may be ignored."
Lawyers for Bush and Harris argue that these provisions give the secretary of state the final word on whether to accept or reject the hand recounts. Her decision to reject the late returns is due to a "strong degree of deference by the courts," Harris' lawyers say. Harris faults not only the counties for being late in conducting their recounts, but clumsy voters for improperly punching ballots.
As the court session ended on Monday, ongoing recounts showed Gore gaining 134 votes so far in the three counties conducting manual recounts, cutting into Bush's 930-vote statewide lead. And the historical election drama continues.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)