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U.S. Supreme Court remands presidential election case to Florida's highest court
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday set aside a ruling by Florida's highest court that allowed manual vote recounts to proceed after a November 14 ballot-certification deadline set by that state's legislature.
In an unsigned, seven-page opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Florida decision for now, remanding the case to Florida's seven justices so they could better explain the legal basis for their ruling extending the certification deadline to November 26.
On that day, the Florida court unanimously ruled that the manual recounts could proceed and ordered that those results be included in the final statewide vote tally to determine who won the razor-thin presidential contest in the state: Republican George W. Bush, or Democrat Al Gore.
"After reviewing the opinion of the Florida Supreme Court, we find 'that there is considerable uncertainty as to the precise grounds for the decision,'" the justices wrote, citing language from a 1940 high court decision.
Also in Monday's "per curiam" opinion -- meaning an opinion of the entire court -- the justices declined to rule on the issues presented in Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board: that the Florida Supreme Court violated the U.S. Constitution and federal election laws.
"This is sufficient reason for us to decline at this time to review the federal questions asserted to be present," according to the ruling.
There was no immediate word from the Florida Supreme Court as to when it would respond to the Monday ruling.
Court spokesman Craig Waters hinted that the Florida justices would clarify their ruling and not sit mum.
"The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court of the land. We do not ignore what they tell us," Waters said in a news conference in Tallahassee, the Florida capital. "The court now has the matter under advisement and will determine how to proceed."
Gore campaign attorney David Boies said the legal burden is back on the Florida Supreme Court to justify extending the deadline. He did not characterize Monday's ruling as a victory or a defeat.
"If the Florida Supreme Court gives clarification that says there's not a federal issue, this is just statutory interpretation, that's the end of it, and the United States Supreme Court has said that's the end of it," he said in Tallahassee, Florida, where the Gore team is pursuing a separate legal battle involving the 2000 presidential election in a state circuit court.
James Baker, a former U.S. secretary of state serving as Bush's campaign observer, portrayed the Monday ruling as a victory for the Republican candidate.
"The legal effect of today's decision is that the Florida courts must construe the election code to be consistent not just with Florida law but also with federal law and with the United States Constitution," he said in a Tallahassee news conference. "This is precisely what we argued before both the Florida and United States supreme courts."
Meanwhile, barring further court action, the Monday ruling paves the way for Harris to certify the statewide tally she adopted on November 14, said Johnny Burris, a scholar of the U.S. and Florida constitutions, who teaches at Nova Southeastern University's law school in Broward County.
On November 14, Bush led Gore by 930 votes. Bush's lead narrowed to 537 votes on November 26.
Bush lawyer Theodore Olson argued before the nation's highest court Friday that the Florida court improperly extended the certification deadline to November 26.
He argued that the court's basis was the state constitution, proving that the court essentially made new law and therefore went beyond its constitutional function of merely interpreting existing law.
Gore attorney Laurence Tribe countered that the Florida court acted properly and did not violate the U.S. Constitution or federal laws.
He added that the justices were indeed interpreting state laws and set the later deadline in a bid to resolve a conflict between two state election laws making unclear whether Harris "shall" or "may" reject manual recount totals filed after the November 14 deadline.
Unless it gets further explanations, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not proceed with the meat of the matter, namely whether the Florida court violated Article II of the U.S. Constitution and the so-called Title III federal law.
Article II gives state legislatures the power to decide how electors must be chosen. Section 5 of Title III, a law adopted in 1887, says the issue of how electors must be chosen must be decided under relevant laws passed before Election Day.
The Bush camp contends the Florida Legislature passed laws years before November 7 of this year, specifying November 14 as the deadline for the state's votes to be counted and certified barring voter fraud, problems with ballot machines or other serious problems.
Since there were no legally sanctioned exceptions to that deadline, Harris certified the vote as required by state law. The Florida Supreme Court usurped the power of the legislature by extending the deadline to November 26, Republican lawyers have said.
The Gore legal team has said extending the deadline does not mean the Florida court was making new law.
They have said myriad problems on Election Day, particularly in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, required manual recounts and more time than seven days after Election Day.
So the Florida court did not violate the U.S. Constitution or Title III, Tribe argued Friday, and Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board does not even belong in federal courts because there were no federal issues involved at all.
U.S. Constitution, Article II
Minute by minute: How the U.S. Supreme Court hearing will proceed
Florida State Courts
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