Legal tussling 101: The other election cases

While nation waits for Supreme Court to weigh in, other cases may be more pivotal.

What one court giveth, another court may taketh away.

That's why the legal landscape is so unsettled and uncertain amid a series of lawsuits in Florida seeking to reorder the vote totals in the closest presidential election in US history.

With George W. Bush leading Al Gore by 537 votes in a contest where nearly 6 million ballots were cast, even minor electoral tweaking by a judge could put someone else in the White House.

And with a fast-approaching Dec. 12 deadline for Florida to name its delegates to the Electoral College, legal disputes that might usually take months or years must be decided in a matter of days or even hours.

Both camps have assembled some of the nation's brightest legal minds and gifted trial advocates. The stage is now set for what promises to be a kind of Super Bowl of legal showdowns, with any one of a half-dozen lawsuits potentially holding the key to the Oval Office.

By far the most important is the suit filed in Tallahassee by Mr. Gore, contesting the election and asking a judge to order manual recounts of thousands of disputed ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties.

But not far behind in importance is the case that will be heard at the US Supreme Court on Friday. In that case, lawyers for Mr. Bush are arguing that a Florida Supreme Court ruling violated the US Constitution and federal law by changing the rules of the election after election day.

If A majority of justices agree with Bush, the ruling might disqualify hundreds of votes counted during manual recounts in three Democratic counties. Gore's vote deficit would grow.

Even more damaging to the vice president's prospects would be the symbolism attached to a loss at the nation's highest, most respected court. Many analysts believe that if Gore loses at the high court, the pressure for him to concede will be enormous.

But that doesn't mean Gore's chances of winning necessarily end in Washington.

If Gore's lawyers are able to secure even a few small victories in pretrial skirmishes in the contest lawsuit, he may be able to buy enough time to have a state judge begin investigating whether valid votes have been illegally excluded from the election totals.

Even if the US Supreme Court rules that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris had the legal authority to reject manual recount votes submitted after the state-law deadline, a state judge may have the power, under Florida law, to overrule her and order those recount votes tallied.

Florida law empowers state judges to investigate the "rejection of a number of legal votes sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election." And it also empowers them to provide "any relief appropriate."

If the Florida judge, N. Sanders Sauls, rules, for example, that a dimpled chad on a ballot should be counted as a valid vote, he could then order the recounting of some 4,000 dimpled ballots in Palm Beach County that the canvassing board rejected last week. Lawyers for Gore estimate there may be as many as 800 additional Gore votes among those dimpled chads.

In addition, if the judge orders a manual recount of some 9,000 disputed ballots in Miami-Dade County, Gore lawyers estimate that may yield an additional 600 votes for the vice president.

And if Judge Sauls further rules that Secretary of State Harris was wrong when she rejected the results of Palm Beach County's manual recount Sunday because it was two hours late, that decision could bring Gore an additional 215 votes.

The final allegation in the Gore contest suit involves 51 Gore votes that were apparently discarded when the canvassing board in Nassau County decided to certify their original election night total rather than their machine recount total.

Overall, the Gore contest suit could bring more than 1,600 additional votes, roughly three times the current Bush lead.

However Sauls rules, it will likely be immediately appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

The seven Democratic-appointed justices have not directly addressed these issues, but their earlier opinion suggests they will be receptive to Gore's case. Whether the case rises to the US Supreme Court remains unclear.

Other cases to watch include:

* A request by voters that the Florida Supreme Court order a revote in Palm Beach County as compensation to thousands of voters who say they were confused by the ballot layout and accidentally voted for two presidential candidates rather than one.

* A suit seeking to disqualify up to 10,000 Republican absentee ballots cast in Seminole County because Republican Party officials helped correct applications for absentee ballots.

* A suit seeking to force five Florida counties to reconsider overseas absentee ballots - including military votes - rejected for technical violations.

* A suit before the federal appeals court in Atlanta challenging the manual-recount process as a violation of the equal protection and due process clauses of the US Constitution. The suit says manual recounts that count dimpled chads as a vote in one county but not in another dilute all other votes in Florida.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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