Florida Supreme Court Hears Both Sides in Election Case

Judges to decide whether recounts by hand are valid

The future of the presidential election now lies in the hands of the seven members of the Florida Supreme Court. As recounts continued, the court held hearings yesterday afternoon to determine whether manual recounts should be included in the final tally.

The court has said it will not issue a ruling before today.

Republicans believe that the court should enforce state law, which says that manual recounts be completed within seven days of the election. Democrats are petitioning the court to extend the deadline due to extraordinary circumstances and the fact that the counties began recounting a full six days after the election, effectively making it impossible for large counties to certify their ballots by the deadline.

The court set the stage for yesterday's hearing last week when it ruled that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris could not certify the official tallies until it had ruled on the matter of the manual recount.

Justices grilled both sides, frequently interrupting lawyers arguments to ask questions.

According to the Associated Press, Democratic advisors have privately commented that they were pleased with the justices' questions and that recounts could continue for now. The Associated Press also reported that Republican advisors had articulated concerns about what they perceived as a tough line of questioning.

In the brief they submitted to the court over the weekend, Republican lawyers included plans for a possible emergency appeal to the Supreme Court.

Yet the likelihood that the U.S. Supreme Court would review the Florida decision is somewhere between "nil" and "remote," New York University law professor Stephen Gillers suggested to the Associated Press.

"It's nil if the state court rules against Gore. I don't think he'll appeal. His brief didn't introduce any federal issues. If the state court rules against Bush, I think the Bush team will wait to see what the recount is likely to show before taking an appeal to the Supreme Court," Gillers said.

"I don't think the Supreme Court will be eager to get involved in answering what Bush says are the federal issues," Gillers added.

The court acknowledged that they will most likely be the last arbiter of the election debate.

A solemn tone pervaded the two and a half-hour hearing conducted by the seven justices--five men and two women.

"The court is certainty aware of the historic nature of this session," said Chief Justice Charles T. Wells. "And is aware that this is a matter of utmost and vital importance to our nation our state and our world."

In other election-related news, Florida Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga ruled yesterday that he did not have the authority to order a Palm Beach revote. Voters confused by the "butterfly ballot" had sued for a revote because they claimed the ballot's design led them to unintentionally invalidate their ballots by punching two holes or to vote for Pat Buchanan. The decision was anticipated and the Democrats are likely to appeal to the State Supreme Court.

Also, Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth said counties should count overseas ballots that bear no postmark. This was a change from a previous Democratic stance that demanded full compliance with all legal standards that would have disqualified ballots lacking postmarks.

Republicans had chastised the Gore camp for supporting broad standards for voting in Democratic counties, while demanding that absentee votes by military personnel, considered likely to vote Republican, conform to technical standards.

Unofficial tallies by the Associated Press show Bush's lead in Florida standing at 930 votes. Overseas absentee ballots were responsible for the increase in Bush's razor-thin margin. The easing of Democratic opposition to un-postmarked absentee ballots, however, could increase that margin.

With manual recounts still incomplete, the Gore vote has increased by a net total of 96 votes. If approved, this would cut Bush's lead to 834. Recounts are already underway in the large, Democratic-leaning counties, Palm Beach and Broward. Another manual recount may begin in the large Miami-Dade County. If continued without disruption, county officials said they expected the count to conclude Dec. 1.

--Wire reports were used in the writing of this story.