TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - It's a double-header of presidential importance.
Vice President Al Gore has turned to the Florida Supreme Court to save his White House bid. Hours earlier, the state's highest court heard from the highest court in the land. It, too, wanted the Florida court's ear on the presidential election contest.
The biggest political dogfight of the century has landed on its steps again, and the Florida Supreme Court is poised to act. Yesterday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the seven justices to clarify their legal reasons for deciding Nov. 21 that Secretary of State Katherine Harris had overstepped her authority when she excluded manual recounts in an initial state certification. That certification named Texas Gov. George W. Bush the winner of the state's crucial 25 electoral votes - enough to give him the key to the White House.
Hours later, the court received an appeal of a Leon County Circuit Court ruling that effectively quashed Gore's efforts to have about 14,000 votes from South Florida manually recounted, part of his proclaimed effort to have every ballot in the state tabulated.
By late yesterday, the Florida court told the Gore and Bush legal teams to present briefs on the U.S. Supreme Court matter by 3 p.m. today.
The judges received the Gore appeal of Judge N. Sanders Sauls' decision before dark. They will probably issue a statement on that matter today.
"I can tell you the justices are concerned to make sure the law is applied according to the law of the land. That is their sworn duty as judges," said Craig Waters, the court's spokesman.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, housed at the State Capitol across the street, is watching. The Republican lawmakers weren't pleased with the Florida court's decision in the case that went to the Supreme Court. They criticized the court for interfering in their business. They're looking to step into this fight to ensure that Florida electors are in place to vote for Bush when the Electoral College meets Dec. 18.
It is a political pressure cooker for a group of men and women who are supposed to be apolitical. Court watchers say the court won't be cowed. "Whatever they do can have a great effect on this election, surely," said Joseph S. Little, a law professor at the University of Florida. "They're ready for it. They're all competent judges and they are all people of integrity and they want to let the world know."
The seven justices - six Democrats and one independent - were appointed by Democratic governors. When the court ruled for Gore on Nov. 21, critics in the Legislature and elsewhere called it a partisan decision. The court is going to be Gore's last shot at claiming the presidency; the vice president's top lawyer said the fight will end there. The question is which case the court will handle first. The justices, five men and two women, have been asked to overturn Sauls' decision, which rejected Gore's argument that the state certified vote excluded legal votes and included illegal ones.
The effect? Changing the outcome of the election, Gore said.
But Sauls found Gore didn't prove his case and denied his request to begin hand counting the contested ballots. The judge made his decision based on findings of fact, which makes Gore's chances of overturning that order difficult, lawyers said.
"Factual determinations are only overturned if they are clearly erroneous," said Philip S. Beck, a Chicago lawyer on the Bush team, who said Sauls had handed his side a "clean sweep."
The key issue for members of the Gore team is that Sauls refused to consider their key piece of evidence - the contested ballots.
"The ballots, Florida courts have repeatedly said over the years, ballots are the best evidence of the voters' intent," said David Boies, Gore's lead lawyer. "This is the first case that I'm aware that in a ballot contest a court has refused to look at any of the ballots. So we think the evidence is there in the record."
The television satellite trucks first parked out front of the Supreme Court building nearly a month ago, when this election contest fight began. They won't be driving off any time soon.
"My guess is that a lot of courts in the country wish they had this [chance]," said Little, the University of Florida law professor. "Who gets to be on TV? Who gets to be the lead story day after day?"