The fate of the tangled US presidential election Tuesday was awaiting a ruling by the US Supreme Court that could determine whether Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore will move into the White House.
After a momentous hearing, the nine justices gave no hint as to when they would issue their ruling, but Tuesday's statutory deadline for certifying slates of electors who will choose the next president suggested a decision should be expected earlier rather than later.
The country's highest court heard over 90 minutes of oral arguments Monday from lawyers for Texas Governor Bush and his Vice President Gore before retiring to deliberate.
At issue is whether or not the court should allow manual recounts of Florida's disputed presidential ballots. Those recounts were ordered by the Florida Supreme Court Friday but the next day the US Supreme Court ordered them suspended pending Monday's hearing on the issue.
Neither candidate can prevail without Florida's decisive 25 votes in the Electoral College, which will pick the 43rd US president on December 18.
Bush, the Texas governor, enjoys a scant 537-vote edge out of more than six million ballots cast in the November 7 election to succeed President Bill Clinton. Gore says hand recounts would show he won Florida.
A decision to scrap recounts is likely to doom Gore's chances, leaving him to face daunting obstacles he must overcome to be sworn in as president on January 20.
One major hurdle is the Republican-held Florida Legislature, which on Tuesday was holding a special session aimed at appointing a pro-Bush slate of electors, which could make hand tallies moot.
As they bombarded the two lawyers with questions, the Supreme Court justices focused on a few key issues: whether the case they are being called upon to decide is a federal issue; did the Florida Supreme Court overstepped its bounds in ordering hand tallies; and what standards should be applied in a recount.
"Where's the federal question here?" Justice Anthony Kennedy asked Bush attorney Theodore Olson minutes into the session.
Lambasting a "voter intent" criterion for counting votes, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at one point declared: "Why isn't the standard the one that voters are instructed to follow, for goodness sake? I mean, it couldn't be clearer."
Under the "intent" standard, some officials were counting now-infamous "dimpled chads" -- which instructions direct voters to detach completely from the ballot -- as votes.
Gore lawyer David Boies countered that, under Florida law, "even if they don't do what they're told, that's supposed to be counted."
Kennedy and O'Connor were widely seen as the swing votes on the court, historically the final arbiter on volatile issues including the Watergate scandal that brought down ex-president Richard Nixon, abortion, and racial segregation.
The high court split 5-4 along ideological lines Saturday as it halted hand recounts ordered a day earlier by the Florida Supreme Court, which said some 40,000 ballots on which machines had failed to discern a vote for president must be reconsidered.
After the session, Boies refused to speculate as to the outcome, telling NBC television that "I've been proved wrong" every time he has made a prediction.
Experts said the court could again split 5-4 -- mirroring the national chasm over the election -- overruling the Florida Supreme Court and severing Gore's final lifeline to the White House.
But the experts said it was possible for the justices to issue something less than a straight up-or-down ruling
"This court might be expected, because of its state's rights focus, to defer to a state court judgment of what has to be done to make sure the lawfully cast ballots are counted," election law expert Peter Rubin told CBS television.
Olson suggested the court may also focus its ruling on disparate election rules in Florida, where, as he put it, "your vote is counted one way in one county and another way in another county."
Meanwhile, committees of Florida's Republican-held legislature voted to have the state lawmakers name a slate of electors to ensure Bush is declared the winner. The full House was due to vote on Tuesday, and the Senate could then vote the next day.
Florida's Supreme Court, meanwhile, announced Monday it had upheld and -- on the US Supreme Court's instructions -- clarified a November decision ordering some hand recounts be included in certified results, shaving nearly 400 votes from Bush's lead.
The US justices had wanted clarification on what the state court had based its decision on, concerned that it may have overreached its mandate and written new legislation.
"This court has clarified that its earlier decision is based on long-standing rules of statutory construction," court spokesman Craig Waters told reporters -- WASHINGTON (AFP)
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