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Former Secretary of State James Baker Addresses Reporters in Tallahassee, Florida

Aired November 15, 2000 - 4:20 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to Tallahassee, because secretary -- former Secretary of State James Baker is about to step before the microphones to talk about events in Florida.

JAMES BAKER, BUSH CAMPAIGN OBSERVER: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I have with me this afternoon Mr. Barry Richard of Tallahassee, Florida, who is a partner in the national law firm of Greenburg Trawrig (ph), and Mr. Ted Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, in case any of you have any questions, detail questions about the litigation.

Five days ago, shortly after Election Day, and I think right here in this room, I cautioned that there would be no reasonable end to the election process in Florida if it should dissolve into multiple recounts and court cases, and I'm afraid to say that's exactly what's happened.

The Gore campaign refused to accept the vote count on Election Day, they refused to accept the results of a recount of all of Florida's counties, they refused to accept the results of test manual recounts in selected Democratic counties that produced changes of only a very few votes. Indeed, Palm Beach County is now poised to begin its fourth vote count.

The Gore campaign has been unwilling to make any commitment to accept finality in this election unless it achieves the results that it is seeking. Instead, they have made some misstatements -- I don't say intentionally, but misstatements -- which I think tend to divert the public from their real purpose.

You all remember a few days ago when we were hearing that the Palm Beach County ballot was illegal. Well, that charge has faded now in the face of evidence about the process by which that ballot was approved and in the face of a finding that the ballot is legal. Next, they charged that the Republicans sought a manual recount in Seminole County, until that assertion was demonstrated to be false.

And now I understand that they are asserting that Republicans have sought and obtained manual recounts in six other counties; again, untrue. We have formal statements from local election officials or Bush representatives in the six counties mentioned by the Democrats which confirm that no such recounts were requested or occurred. After days of disputing our statements that the selective manual recounts would occur without any objective and uniform standards, lo and behold, today, finally, they have admitted that indeed there are no standards and no uniform rules for manual recounts. And they now say that they're going to ask a court to set some standards. Inexplicably, they want the manual recounts to proceed while they are waiting for the standards that now they themselves are requesting.

By our most recent count, the Democrats or their supporters have filed at least 12 lawsuits to challenge the election results. They even filed suit in one of their selected Democratic counties to overturn the decision of the local electoral board which had decided not to recount the whole county manually after its test of three precincts.

We have filed only one lawsuit, our original defensive action in federal district court to try to protect ourselves against the flood of litigation that I warned about from the start several days ago. Indeed, the litigation is so run amuck now, that when asked about accepting a final court ruling that they themselves are now requesting, Secretary Christopher said today that the numerous questions in litigation created too much uncertainty for them to make such a commitment.

Yesterday, we proposed a reasonable compromise to bring finality in a fair way to the Florida election, and, indeed, thereby to the national election. To the best we can tell, the Gore campaign's reply is that this compromised proposal is unfair, because they are unsure that it will provide them with enough votes to change the result.

Today, they offered us another reply: They're filing another lawsuit. By now, the Gore campaign strategy, I think is crystal clear: Keep conducting selective recounts, keep filing lawsuits, keep making false charges that divert attention and keep refusing to accept any deadline until the results change. Even though the process has been undermined by this relentless strategy, I truly hope that we can still bring it to a fair and reasonable end.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, there is one point of agreement that both parties had today, that is that the cases should be consolidated; you say in the Second Circuit, they say in the supreme court.

QUESTION: But with that one nugget of something that you agree on, can you build upon that and perhaps offer another compromise this as a building block?

BAKER: Well, I would hope that at some point there would be a way to reach agreement with respect to what ought to happen. I'm not at all sure that that is the route that will -- could ultimately be followed.

We would, of course, as evidenced by our original lawsuit, be interested in making sure that we had, and that our supporters had, and that the citizens of Florida who are being treated differently than those who are being -- whose vote is being manually recounted, would be sure that they would be entitled to the constitutional protections of the federal Constitution. So I don't know whether we would get there or not.

QUESTION: One of your counterparts in the Gore campaign, David Boies, said today that their reasons are not inexplicable for wanting to keep recounting. Rather, they fear that what you are trying to delay this process with the secretary of state, and then have this deadline come on Saturday and declare the election over.

So my question is this: Would you be willing to toll any deadline on recounting while the supreme court considers whether the recount should go forward, and then, if the supreme court says yes with the recounts, accept a later deadline on the election results?

BAKER: Well, where would that end, in your opinion? I mean, you are not here to answer the questions; I am. But I would suggest to you that process could take us, as I mentioned yesterday, perhaps even to December 18.

I mean, there is -- there would be no finality, no one would know what the deadline is, and if you're asking me would we be willing to, in effect, abandon the vote count, abandon the recount, walk away from the laws of Florida which provide for and require certification by the chief elections officer of this state, I don't think we can do that. And I don't think we ought to be asked to do that.

Yes, one follow-up.

QUESTION: What about their claim that all you're trying to do is delay these recounts until the election is certified on Saturday?

BAKER: Well, I think that's patently false on its face. The recounts have not taken place not because we're delaying them. The federal district court turned us down in our request for a delay on the manual recounts because we thought that the process is unfair, gives rise to human error, gives rise to the potential for great mischief. We've been turned down on our request to do that.

The delay, if any there has been, has been on the part of these counties that vote one day one way, to conduct a recount; the next day, they change their mind, they vote another way. Then the Gore campaign threatens to sue them or even sues them, and they go back and change their mind one more time.

We're not the cause of the delay. That ought to be clear to everybody. I hope it is.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, it's not my understanding that the Gore campaign has alleged that Republicans demanded these recounts in these six or seven other counties, only that in six or seven counties in the course -- normal course of tabulating election results for various reasons, some manual recounts were involved which produced, coincidentally, gains for Governor Bush.

QUESTION: Is that different from your understanding? BAKER: Well, it is different from my understanding about what they said this morning from this platform. It's my understanding that they have said to you on a couple of occasions that Republicans have asked for manual recounts, and manual recounts have been conducted in Republican counties. I do not think that is true. I think that...


QUESTION: ... asked for or conducted or both?

BAKER: I don't think either. I don't think it's true that they've been asked for and I don't think it's true that they've been conducted.

Now, I did say to you, and we believe this, we do know this, that in Seminole County they were going through a machine recount, the machine kicked out a few ballots, and the Democratic and Republican representatives there agreed they would look at those kicked-out ballots and then rerun them through the machine by hand.

That's a far different process than the one that we've seen on TV, where they're sitting here looking at a pregnant chad or a dimple or a hanging chad or a swinging chad. I mean, that's a heck of a lot different.


QUESTION: You've talked about the Gore campaign's strategy, but the Democrats have repeatedly said all they want are fair recounts in four counties. It's not endless, it's not -- it won't go on forever; they just want the four countries recounted. So...

BAKER: Yes. Yes. But you know how long -- it's obvious how long it's going to take: It's going to take quite a bit of time. And I would submit to you that we've had fair recounts. We're about to recount Palm Beach County for the fourth time. That seems to me, seems...

QUESTION: Not all of the votes.

BAKER: Seems to me to be incredible, particularly when we all know that the more you handle these punch ballots the more they deteriorate, the more likelihood there is you're going to knock that piece of chad out. So, I'm sorry, I just disagree with them.

QUESTION: A number of the counties, today, responded to the secretary of state's deadline here asking for these manual counts again. Just so we're crystal clear on your position, when they want to go forward with these counts, these manual counts, that they've asked for today, your position is what?

BAKER: Well, I think I said three or four days ago, we think the process is seriously flawed, we think it presents tremendous opportunities for human error and, indeed, for the possibility of mischief. And I said we would, therefore, vigorously oppose the idea of selectively recounting manually the votes in four heavily Democratic counties. That's our position.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) situation with the 11th Circuit, has there been a hearing set or is this just in case you're going to be preparing papers, and what's the status of that?

BAKER: Well, if you want to know about the situation with the 11th Circuit, Ted Olson is here, who's representing us in that litigation. If you want to know about the situation in the Florida supreme court, Barry Richards is here, and he's representing us in that litigation. So I'll let Ken Olson respond to your question -- I mean Ted Olson respond to your question.


THEODORE OLSON, BUSH CAMPAIGN ATTORNEY: We have not heard yet, with respect to the scheduling of anything. Now, you may have heard things before we have. All we heard today was that the 11th Circuit had indicated that it wanted to hear the case and that all of the judges in that circuit -- there are 12 active judges in that circuit -- have agreed to take the case en banc, which means that all judges will participate.

We haven't heard a deadline for the filing of papers. Our papers will be filed today; it may not be until very, very late in the day. And we can't provide copies of them to the press until we've gotten them to the court.

But we are going to -- pardon me?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) by 7 a.m. tomorrow?

OLSON: I heard that too, but I think I heard that over the media and I presume that that's accurate, but we have not personally heard it and we haven't received any piece of paper. But our papers are prepared, and they will be there before 7 a.m., and we're hoping that they'll be well before midnight.

QUESTION: Mr. Richard, what's the status in the supreme court?

BARRY RICHARD, BUSH CAMPAIGN ATTORNEY: There have been actions filed in the supreme court by the secretary of state and one by the supervisor -- by Volusia County. It's my opinion that the supreme court has no jurisdiction. If the supreme court should determine that it has jurisdiction, I think it will have to do so by recognizing a source of jurisdiction that it has never heretofore recognized.

I might mention by the way, with respect to a comment that -- a question that one of the press asked, that the parties cannot confer jurisdiction on the supreme court by a compromise or by agreement. The supreme court's jurisdiction is clearly set forth in the Florida constitution, and it's very narrow.

That's the reason that we have not joined in suggesting that the supreme court take this case. The supreme court's been silent since the first filing early this morning.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the secretary of state's petition, though?

RICHARD: We have intervened in both of the petitions. The reason for our intervention is not because we believe that the supreme court has jurisdiction, but just so that we will receive notice of anything that happens there and that we will be given an opportunity to be heard, should the supreme court decide that it will hear arguments.

QUESTION: So you don't even agree with the secretary of state's request that the court assert jurisdiction and assign it to the circuit court here in Leon County?

RICHARD: Well, we do agree with the secretary of state that the only county that has venue over these multitude of jurisdictions is Leon County. And as a matter of fact, we filed motions in the circuit courts in the other countries in which we've advised the court that they are without jurisdiction because of the lack of venue and that those cases should be transferred here. But we do not believe that the supreme court is the court that is a position either to hear the cases or to transfer them here. We believe that they need to be transferred here by the circuit courts.


QUESTION: ... courts have set any standards in exercising some kind of original jurisdiction that you don't believe it has, the supreme court has no role in doing that, you believe; should not be now setting standards absent a proceeding in the circuit court?

RICHARD: I can find no basis, either in the Florida constitution or in the Florida supreme court precedent, for them taking jurisdiction at this stage of the proceedings.

QUESTION: Does Florida statute assert that cases against public officials should be heard here in the circuit court in Tallahassee?

RICHARD: The only venue -- with certain exceptions that are not applicable in this situation, the only county in which a public official can be sued is the county in which their principal headquarters is located.

The secretary of state, the governor, the director of the Division of Elections, all of whom make up the Elections Canvassing Commission for the state of Florida, by law have their headquarters in Tallahassee. I believe that all of them are indispensable parties to all of these actions, which means that these actions can't proceed without them, and consequently, in those -- even those in which they haven't been named, I believe that those actions can only be brought in Leon County.

BAKER: We have to take one more question.

David, you wanted to follow up on that.

QUESTION: Secretary Baker, given what you said yesterday about how there is uncertainty abroad, uncertainty in financial markets, the Bush campaign has some decisions to make about whether it pursues recounts or challenges elections in other states -- Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon, New Mexico. Will you swear off doing that in order to wrap this election up as soon as possible?

BAKER: We might be willing to do that if we could see some similar response from the other side, with respect to swearing off of additional request for recounts and additional lawsuits, right here in Florida. You bet your life.

Thank you all very, very much.

WATERS: James Baker representing the Bush campaign. He's down there in Florida, warning us once again about the flood of legal wrangling that he mentioned about four days ago. He said, now it's run amok, the Democrats are gumming up the works, claims James Baker.

Bill Schneider, political analyst, in Washington, both sides are blaming the other for delay. We heard it from the Democrats this morning. We heard it again from James Baker now. The Gore people are saying voters are patient, the Bush people saying they're impatient. Which is it?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they're pretty patient right now. I'd say on that point I think the Gore campaign has a strong argument. The voters are willing to see a fair and final count of the votes, but they're not infinitely patient.

I think what we're seeing now is the Republicans feel a little bit defensive because the charges are being made by Democrats and others that they don't want to count the ballots. That's what the Democrats keep saying: They don't want to count the ballots. We're trying to count the ballots.

So what Jim Baker has come out and said is that they're the ones who are gumming up the process, they have 12 lawsuits filed, we have one. They are saying we have asked for all kinds of manual recounts, and he said, that's false, we haven't done that, we're trying to get the process to closure as quickly as possible, and also we want some clear standards for those recounts that are going on.

WATERS: Also joining us, David Cardwell. He's our CNN election law analyst.

David, you heard what they were saying with regard to these lawsuits getting into the Florida Supreme Court. Barry Richards saying there the Supreme Court of Florida has no jurisdiction in these lawsuits. What do you make of that?

DAVID CARDWELL, CNN ELECTION LAW ANALYST: Well, the Florida Supreme Court does have very limited jurisdiction. In fact, our Constitution was amended several years ago to limit the jurisdiction to ease its case load and try to put more of the appellate work in our intermediate courts of appeal.

The difficulty we have here and why there seems to be a multitude of lawsuits and why they're being brought in different jurisdictions is that we have some issues being raised that have never been raised before in any sort of contested election of Florida. We are definitely in unchartered areas. It's where even though a court may find an official has discretion, we've got a lot of officials that aren't quite sure what that discretion is and what's the limit on what they can do. As a result, you get a lot of lawsuits.

WATERS: David Cardwell, Bill Schneider, we'll talk again.



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