Cover Story

Every law counts

On the 35th day of recounts the Supreme Court closed the door. We sing of: 12 felons voting 11 pundits talking 10 lawyers leaping 9 canvassers counting 8 trucks transporting 7 sign-carriers screaming 6 schemes a-laying 5 hanging chads 4 jumpy justices 3 circuit courts 2 tired campaigns And a president in a pear tree

Issue: "Every law counts," Dec. 23, 2000

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ended the Florida muddle, and George W. Bush finally became the president-elect. But when the crucial court decision finally came on Tuesday, Dec. 12-five weeks to the day after Americans went to the polls-the network talking heads initially misunderstood it. Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court on a cold December night, leafing through a hot-off-the-press ruling in Bush vs. Gore, two NBC legal analysts went on for five minutes as if the vice president had triumphed. Fox News, meanwhile, was fooled for almost half an hour by the splintered, seemingly contradictory opinion.

Admittedly, the justices themselves didn't offer any help. After keeping the nation in suspense for nearly 36 agonizing hours, they departed the white marble courthouse one by one, in silence, starting around 8 p.m. Two hours later, their 65-page decision was distributed without comment.

Only gradually did the truth emerge: The closest, bitterest presidential race in modern American history was over at last. A strong majority of seven justices struck down the Florida ruling that had allowed Al Gore to proceed with yet another hand recount that could have put him in the White House. A much narrower, 5-4 majority ruled that there was no constitutional way to repair the faulty legal logic of the Florida court. The recount, in other words, was history. By an almost inconceivably narrow margin, George W. Bush had won Election 2000.

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Not that Mr. Gore would actually say so. In a speech to the nation just 23 hours after the court's decision, he congratulated his rival "on becoming the 43rd president," without saying that Mr. Bush had won anything. Mr. Gore also said that the election was decided by the "honored institutions of our democracy"-not by the will of the voters.

Still, the man reared to be president by a proud political family was gracious-even charming-in accepting the end of his dream. Mr. Gore called repeatedly on the nation to unite behind Mr. Bush and added, "May God bless his stewardship of this country."

An hour later President-elect Bush strode into the Texas Capitol to claim, finally, the prize that had been just out of reach since Nov. 7. Introduced fondly by Democrat Pete Laney, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, Mr. Bush asked a divided nation for its support and its prayers as he sought to "move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past.... Our votes may differ, but not our hopes."

After five weeks of unprecedented legal wrangling, the election drama played itself out in five hectic, nerve-wracking days. The first act was a major victory for Mr. Gore: In a 4-3 ruling on Friday, Dec. 8, the Florida Supreme Court ordered an immediate hand recount of all 43,000 ballots statewide that had failed to register a vote for president. Florida Chief Justice Charles Wells offered a blistering dissent (see sidebar, page 21).

Election officials across the state went to work at once, hauling out nearly 6 million ballots to begin the tedious task of separating the so-called undervotes in anticipation of a hand count. As the counting began in numerous counties, it appeared that Republicans were viewing potential votes conservatively and Democrats were expansive in embracing dimpled intent.

In Tallahassee, meanwhile, some 9,000 undervotes from Miami were already under lock and key, awaiting the eight judges who would arrive Saturday morning to begin the recount effort. Laboring once again without any objective standard for determining "the clear intent of the voter," the judges worked through nearly 1,000 ballots an hour, sorting the paper cards into boxes labeled "Bush," "Gore," "Other," "No vote," and "Disputed." At the end of the day, Judge Terry Lewis was to single-handedly examine the ballots in the "Disputed" box, awarding them to one candidate or the other.

To the hundreds of Bush supporters gathered outside, the entire process was intolerable. While crowds shouted "Kangaroo court" and "Save our republic," New York Gov. George Pataki held an impromptu news conference in the parking lot, calling the effort inside the library "an outrage and a miscarriage of justice."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) tried to rally the vastly outnumbered Gore troops with a speech of her own, but she was quickly drowned out by shouts of "Go back to California!" and "Get over it! Go home!"

Then, soon after lunch, history once again lurched away from Al Gore. In a stunning

5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an immediate halt to the recount underway in Florida. Lawyers from both sides were summoned to present oral arguments on Monday, Dec. 11, in what would become perhaps the most important election-law case ever to reach the high court.

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