With time running out, Gore makes his case to Florida high court

One tumultuous month after Election Day, Al Gore is asking the Florida Supreme Court to revive his quest for the White House by ordering a new round of manual recounts. George W. Bush looked to the state's justices to finally count his rival out.

''Now is the last chance for a legal judgment to be rendered in this case,'' Gore's lawyers argued in papers filed Wednesday on the eve of formal arguments before the state's high court in Tallahassee, Fla.

That was fine with Bush, certified the winner in Florida by 537 votes and eagerly looking forward to a presidential transition and inauguration. ''It seems like all the different court suits are working their way to finality and hopefully we can get this over with quickly,'' he said.

There were other subplots in America's riveting election drama, including an announcement that the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature would meet in special session to appoint its own slate of electors.

But nothing captured the national uncertainty better than a ceremony marking the beginning of work on the stands outside the Capitol in Washington where the next president will deliver his inaugural address.

''Hopefully, we will have the answer of 'who' sometime soon,'' said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the committee in charge of inauguration arrangements.

The Florida Supreme Court set aside an hour for the two legal teams to argue their points - Gore's attorneys seeking to overturn a trial court ruling that let Bush's certified statewide victory stand, and the Texas governor hoping to sustain it.

The court set arguments on an unusually condensed timetable, a gesture to the overriding national importance of the issue and a Dec. 12 deadline for picking electors. It was only Monday when Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls rejected Gore's challenge to Bush's certified statewide victory and refused to order any recounts.

Even before Sauls' courtroom had cleared, Gore's lawyers rushed to file an appeal, and the state Supreme Court announced on Tuesday it would allow the lawyers to make their cases in public. Florida's high court will allow television cameras to broadcast the proceedings.

It was not clear when the state's justices would deal with another case, this one instructions from the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify a ruling last month that allowed manual recounts to proceed beyond a state-mandated deadline. As a result of that ruling, Gore cut Bush's lead by nearly 400 votes.

Bush was in Texas, the vice president in Washington, as their attorneys clashed for the prize of Florida's 25 electoral votes. The statewide winner of Florida stands to gain the White House and take the oath of office as the nation's 43rd president on Jan. 20.

The plan to summon the legislature into session drew sharp criticism from Democrats. ''The only thing missing on the proclamation is the post mark from Austin, Texas,'' charged Rep. Lois Frankel, leader of the House Democrats, referring to the Bush campaign.

The GOP leaders, Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay, said they were acting to preserve the state's right to have its electors counted in the Electoral College on Dec. 18, and had not been pressured by Bush's campaign to act.

''Our sole responsibility will be to put forth a slate of electors that is untainted and ensures that Florida's 25 electoral votes count in this election, regardless for whom they voted, said McKay at a news conference.

He added, though, that his preference was for electors loyal to Bush, saying they should be appointed ''based upon the vote totals that were available on November 14, and equally important, on the laws that were in place as of the date of the election on November 7.''

In other developments, there were parallel trials in two Florida courtrooms over lawsuits filed by Democrats seeking to have absentee ballots thrown out.

In one, Seminole County's elections supervisor, Sandra Goard, admitted in a deposition read aloud in court Wednesday that she had let Republican Party officials fill in voter ID numbers on absentee ballot applications - the first time she had done so for any party.

And in a largely symbolic ruling in a federal appeals court in Atlanta that denied Bush's bid to throw out the results of manual recounts already completed.

The Atlanta court ruled that since Bush was ahead before the recounts, and still ahead afterward, he had not suffered ''irreparable injury.''

At the same time, the judges did not rule on the constitutional claims advanced by the Texas governor, a point that Bush's lawyers stressed afterward.

Gore's aides seized on the ruling, saying it cleared the way for Florida's high court to decide the election by counting additional ballots requested by the vice president. ''We're very pleased that the court rejected the Bush campaign's effort to throw out hand counts,'' spokesman Doug Hattaway said.

The vice president's lawyers pressed the same point in their written arguments to the Florida Supreme Court.

''Unfortunately, the most important documents are the ones the trial judge refused to look at, even though he admitted them into evidence - the nearly 14,000 ballots now in the custody of this court,'' they wrote.

''In a few more days, only the judgment of history will be left to fall upon a system where deliberate obstruction has succeeded in achieving delay - and where further delays risk succeeding in handing democracy a defeat,'' the Gore team said.

Unsurprisingly, that wasn't how the Bush lawyers saw it.

''At no time in our nation's history has a presidential race been decided by an election contest in a court of law,'' they said in language that seemed not an invitation, but a word of caution.


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