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Next into the fray: the high court

Partisan election case could alter image of Supreme Court's impartiality in eyes of some Americans.

By Warren Richey Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 27, 2000


The US Supreme Court holds the power to break the deadlock in Florida's 2000 presidential election. But at what price?

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If a majority of justices rule decisively in favor of George W. Bush or Al Gore, legal analysts say the court risks drawing accusations of political bias, or worse, charges that the high court is installing the next president.

With the nine justices set to hear arguments on Friday in the Florida election dispute, some analysts are questioning whether the case might alter public perceptions about one of America's most trusted and revered institutions.

"To some extent, it is an inevitable consequence of engaging in a high-stakes case, in which they have undertaken to solve the conflict between two presidential candidates," says Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. But he adds, "The United States Supreme Court enjoys much more respect from the people than does any state supreme court and it will, by and large, have legitimacy in all but the most partisan quarters."

Indeed, the US Supreme Court basks in a somewhat exalted status in comparison to the other two branches of the national government. And the justices jealously protect the court's image as an impartial forum for the resolution of thorny legal disputes.

But the court has also received its share of criticism. In addition, future high-court appointments were a campaign issue during the presidential election.

Seven of the nine justices were appointed by Republican presidents. But legal analysts stress that party affiliation alone is not an accurate predictor of how individual justices may rule.

Nonetheless, some observers are asking whether the US Supreme Court can avoid the taint of partisan politics in a case that is so obviously political.

"They can't," says Gov. Frank Keating, (R) of Oklahoma. "Everyone is a partisan."

Governor Keating and other Republican leaders are in Florida to witness the manual ballot recount and to register objections to a process they say is unfair.

"Judges are political like everyone else," adds Gov. William Janklow (R) of South Dakota, referring to the US Supreme Court. "They are not above politics."

The comments come less than a week after the Florida Supreme Court was lambasted in the wake of a decision that many Republicans viewed as an attempt by the Democrat-appointed justices to hand the election to Vice President Gore.

Governor Bush denounced the Florida court's decision as flagrant judicial activism.

"The court had cloaked its ruling in legalistic language," Bush said. "But make no mistake, the court rewrote the law. It changed the rules, and it did so after the election was over."

Did Florida court usurp authority?

Many legal analysts, including lawyers for Gore, say the Florida court's decision is entirely defensible on legal grounds. They say the justices used well-established methods to interpret ambiguous state statutes.