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But the biggest casualty of all is the credibility of the Supreme Court as a principled arbiter of the Constitution and of federal law. It's a shame that the Court did not meditate long enough on one of the key observations from the Florida Supreme Court's Chief Justice Wells, who warned in his dissent in Gore v. Harris of the hazards of a court's being too willing to intervene. "We run a great risk that every election will result in judicial testing," wrote Wells. "Judicial restraint in respect to elections is absolutely necessary because the health of our democracy depends on elections being decided by voters -- not by judges."
Whatever one may think of the Florida high court's handling of the election cases, there's no disputing that when it comes to lack of judicial restraint, it's the U.S. Supreme Court that takes the prize.
Constitutional litigation will return to normal, but the political battles are just getting started.
By Richard Epstein
What is the moral of the Great Florida Recount? Bush supporters, whether devoted or tepid (I fall in the latter category), may be personally relieved that the outcome lined up with their votes. But partisan politics aside, we can learn larger lessons from this classic judicial brawl. One lesson is that tragedies and near tragedies develop one small step at a time. Each side is rightly and mightily distressed with the prior machinations of the other. Each is therefore emboldened to take the next small step. Each step prompts the next until we come to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
That's just what happened starting November 7, 2000. Most pundits thought Al Gore's prompt request for a hand recount in friendly precincts would prolong the election by perhaps another week. They were the same type of folks who in August 1914 thought that British troops would return home from France by Christmas. What the election optimists missed is that both sides of this close conflict deeply believed that they had right on their side.
That is the second lesson of Florida's long count. The prolonged grudge match between George W. Bush and Al Gore offers ample confirmation of the endurance of primal instincts in human affairs. In our over-intellectualized analysis of politics, we place too much emphasis on the word "political" and too little on the word "animal" in the phrase "political animal." Alas, nature's first maxim of survival is to avoid a fair fight when both sides run the risk of serious injury. Nature therefore codes all animals to hold their ground when right, and to slink away when wrong. That game plan works pretty well except when each side to a dispute thinks in moral terms and believes it is right. Then a battle royal ensues.
The mutual sense of being wronged intensified the conflict, as did the fact that each side needed to make only the kinds of arguments most congruent with its legal philosophy. Democrats take an expansive view of language and harbor a yen for social justice, while Republicans gravitate toward plain-meaning interpretations and the rigorous application of formal rules. Truth is, this contest would have been over sooner if the litigating position of each side had required it to embrace the legal philosophy congenial to the other. But instead, the striking correlation of their legal strategies to their deepest psychological predispositions goaded both sides to fight harder.
The initial Gore response was an irritated expression of disbelief at the large but confused "butterfly ballot" vote for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County. But since Democratic operatives had prepared this ballot (to make the print easier for seniors to read), the Gore people could not lash out at Republican misdeeds, nor rectify the error in court. They did, however, think that the Republicans owed them one on the recount, and thus were emboldened to pressure canvassing board officials in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to run a hand recount that paid ever-greater homage to dimpled chads.
Republicans reciprocated in kind because they had no remorse for having won Florida fair and square, notwithstanding Democratic blunders. They showed their true colors when Florida's Secretary of State Katherine Harris eagerly exercised her discretion to deny the contested counties a waiver of the one-week deadline established for recounts. After all, the initial review of the ballots in Broward and Palm Beach counties resulted in only about 2 percent of the "undervote" being converted into votes. Thereafter, the consistently more lax standards in Broward County converted dimpled chads into 567 net Gore votes. Palm Beach County followed a more erratic but conservative course, which in the end produced, depending on who is believed, between 176 and 215 net Gore votes.
Clearly the choice of standards mattered. To forestall such erratic behavior, what Harris should have done was first to allow more time to complete a recount, but then to insist that manual recounts did not change the standard for a valid vote, which at least required that light go through the hole. Instead she neglected to give any principled defense of her position, which made her vulnerable to attack. In fact, her legal argu-ments were strong: Florida election law requires an "error in tabulation" to trigger the hand recount, and the machines had worked just fine.
The Florida Supreme Court, however, was now poised to do a bit of high-stepping of its own. The state election law was poorly drafted. Yet it is best read to say that the canvassing boards had to present tallies to the secretary in a week, though leaving her with the power to extend the deadline. The Florida Supreme Court exploited the textual ambiguity to come up with a solution that was inconsistent with any plausible reading of the statute. In a good day's work, that court read "error in tabulation" to allow Gore to challenge the traditional standard for a valid vote. It brushed over the obvious statutory concern with finality in election disputes; it authorized highly subjective hand counts without any safeguards against favoritism and bias; and out of whole cloth it created its own new November 26, 2000, deadline for finishing the hand count.
The Republican faithful on and off the U.S. Supreme Court noted the obvious distortions of the statutory scheme. But they were faced with the same dilemma that had just sapped the legitimacy of the Florida Supreme Court: The higher a case goes in the judicial system, the narrower the grounds for review, and the stronger the arguments needed to sustain a reversal. The Florida Supreme Court did not meet that burden when it overturned the secretary of state, so the conservative five on the U.S. Supreme Court faced the next round of the ongoing realpolitik dilemma: Play the game straight at your level and lose to the machinations of the judges below, or stretch the law a bit at your level, if necessary, so as to undo their error with some judicial innovations of your own. The case had not gone far enough to stop all litigation in Florida cold, so a grumpy but unanimous U.S. Supreme Court asked for the Florida Supreme Court to explain itself -- only to set the stage for a bigger fight next time round. Nine troubled justices retained peace without honor, through delay.
Back in Florida, business continued at a brisk pace. The canvassing boards in the key Florida counties all responded differently to the November 26, 2000, deadline. Broward finished its count and came up with a trove of over 500 new Gore votes. Miami-Dade called off its count, and Palm Beach County came within two hours of finishing its own recount. Harris, ever jealous of the prerogatives of her office, rejected the Palm Beach request for delay, and certified the Bush victory. That action promptly moved the case from its protest phase to its contest phase.
This move is larger in legal than popular estimation. A protest leads to more administrative work, but a contest requires a full-dress trial, complete with fact witnesses and cross-examination. The contest trial was held before Judge N. Sanders Sauls. who, consistent with the first Florida Supreme Court decision, found that the canvassing boards had not abused their discretion in the extended recount phase. He also found, more debatedly perhaps, against the Gore team on the grounds that they failed to meet the probabilistic burden of proof required for a contest.