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Election 2000: Leon County Court Hears Dispute Over Florida Ballots

Aired December 3, 2000 - 6:44 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Judge Sauls is lining up what seems to be a long evening going ahead here going down to the Leon County Circuit Court there and watching all this. It now looks like what Judge Sauls is looking at for the rest of this evening is at least a little bit of over three hours worth of closing statements from the various parties involved in this, both the Bush team, the Gore team, as well as some of the counties represented in the arguments being made there in Judge Sauls' courtroom.

I want to tell you, bring up to date on what's been going on in the last hour or so. About 5:30 Eastern Time, those who had been thinking that this was going to come to a quick end, we got a little false hope thinking that they'd heard the last of the witness testimony.

After that, however, the court heard from several individual what are called interveners, two who voiced some concern that their votes had not been treated the same way as those voters in counties which did have hand manual counts, two others who said that voting in the panhandle part of Florida might have been effected by early calls by some news media organizations giving the state of Florida and its 25 electoral votes to Vice President Gore. They thought their voting there might be affected as well.

And then the court also heard a rebuttal from one of the Gore witnesses. That would be the statistician, Professor Hendgartner (ph).

We want to bring in here David Cardwell, our analyst down on the scene in Tallahassee. He's been following all through these developments, watching every bit of the proceedings that have been going on down there.

David, these elements in the last hour and looking ahead to the rest of the night, wow, it looks like this short hearing is going to turn into quite a long night there.

DAVID CARDWELL, CNN ELECTION LAW ANALYST: Well, we thought it might turn into a marathon, though as trials typically go it's still a short one. But we thought that perhaps the court might take a recess tonight and then do final arguments in the morning because there was a lot of procedural wrangling over the introduction of documents. But they seem to have worked their way through that. And the judge does want to try to get this proceeding finished. He's still got a lot to review before he'll be able to render his decision.

So it appears what he wants to do is get all the oral arguments in, get this part of the case completed, so he's got tomorrow to start going through the evidence and coming to his conclusion. But you're right. We're going to be here late. He's talking about starting sometime after 7:00 p.m. And we're counting that it looks like we could have as much as four hours of oral argument tonight.

CHEN: Wow, all right, David Cardwell, our CNN election law analyst speaking with us from Tallahassee. We'll ask you to stand by again. We're certainly going to hear from you later.

The court is now in about a 15-minute recess coming up to the top of the hour again before they have additional hearing. CNN is going to take a break here. We'll return with more coverage after this.


CHEN: Court session is in a break coming up to the top of the hour as CNN's coverage goes on.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: It does indeed. And what we've just been hearing is from other counties that have been unheard from until this point in the hearing. These are not people who have been part of the attention that we've been focusing on Florida since the vote was counted, then recounted.

These are people from other counties who are concerned that the way the recounts were conducted in Broward or Miami-Dade leaves them disenfranchised because they didn't get the same treatment. So it seems like they're coming out of left field raising their hands saying, "Well, what about us, Judge?"

And it's interesting to see how that's being taken by people who are watching all of this. Let's turn now to Gary Tuchman, who's been in the courtroom paying attention to developments.

Gary, what can you tell us about these latest interveners, as the judge calls them?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first, the most important news, the thing that everyone has been waiting for, a decision from the judge who just asked Judge N. Sanders Sauls, who left the courtroom for the recess, "Do you plan on issuing a ruling tonight when this is all over?" He said, "No comment."

So he's not telling us if the decision will come tonight after it's all over or on some later date, most likely tomorrow. But we can tell you in the courtroom regarding the interveners, the Gore lawyers, the Bush lawyers, the secretary of state lawyers, is that everyone is kind of surprised that the judge decided to go into late in the evening. The judge had been saying he wanted to finish yesterday. Then he said he would like to finish today. But not everyone believed he'd go late into the evening. But now they're believers.

One hour for Gore. One hour for Bush. Thirty minutes for the secretary of state's attorney, and then a grand total of about 40 minutes for those interveners. And what they are are lawyers representing common citizens angry with the way things turned out election night.

One set of interveners is angry at the networks who called the state of Florida after 7:00 Eastern time when it was still 6:00 Central time in the panhandle. And they claim they did not go and vote because that call had been made. Another group of interveners says that count should happen in all 67 counties and not just counties that the Democrats pick.

In addition to that, a 30-minute final close for the Gore team. They're allowed to give a final close under court rules, especially because these interveners, all of them, are speaking against the Gore case also.

It looks like we'll be here until about 11:00 Eastern time tonight, perhaps even longer if it's needed. But this judge seems rather determined to finish this case evening. As far as a ruling, though, he has told us nothing at this point.

Back to you.

FRAZIER: Gary, glad the batteries are working so well in your cell phone. Gary Tuchman reporting from inside the courtroom -- Joie.

CHEN: Working on batteries as well. CNN's Wolf Blitzer of the "LATE EDITION" program, an abbreviated version of it joining us now from Washington -- Wolf.


And joining us is Senator Fred Thompson, Republican of Tennessee. You were at the Supreme Court on Friday listening to the 90 minutes of arguments made before the nine justices. You've been following what's been going on these past two days in this hearing in Tallahassee. Is it fair to assume that the longer this goes, the longer the deliberation goes before the circuit court in Leon County, the less likely there will be a manual recount?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), TENNESSEE: I don't know if that's fair or not. All I know is that the judge will probably rule sometime this week. I think the Supreme Court will probably rule sometime this week. And if the vice president loses either one of those cases, either one of those rulings, I think it will probably be over for him.

BLITZER: But if he wins -- let's say he win both of them, hypothetically, is there enough time to do the kind of manual recount in Miami-Dade and Broward -- or, excuse me, in Palm Beach County that he's looking for? THOMPSON: I don't think, not under the rules as we have known them. Now if they construe the cut-off date to be later than what we've assumed then, perhaps, but that's one of the...

BLITZER: Cut-off date being December 12th -- excuse me.

THOMPSON: Right. That's one of the dates -- that's one of the problems that the Supreme Court of Florida got into when they extended the time line. When they did that, they really compressed the time for a contest. It was apparent from the very beginning they weren't really going to have time to do a contest in the normal sense of the word, so everything gets compressed. You'd have something that would normally take a considerable period of time taking two days. And it's just -- it's no way to elect a president.

BLITZER: You know, given the uphill struggle that Vice President Gore now faces, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Dick Cheney was on "Meet the Press" earlier today offering some advice to Al Gore.

Listen to what Dick Cheney said.


RICHARD B. CHENEY (R), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do think that it's time for him to concede. So far, he's chosen not to do that, to pursue other avenues, and clearly that's his prerogative. But I think long-term I think history would regard him in a better light if he were to bring this to a close in the very near future.


BLITZER: Pretty strong words from Dick Cheney: "time for him to concede."

THOMPSON: I think he's right, but I also think it's academic. I mean, he's not going to. There's going to be these two decision come down. I think that probably he'll be required to when that happens, and it will be time.

The world is a very dangerous place. We're having a bit of an economic downturn now. We need to get about our business. This transition phase is very important to the success of any new president. It's proven to have been so in times past, so it's time we got on with it, and certainly I would hope this week will bring that about.

BLITZER: As you know, Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state, who is the point person for Al Gore in this whole Florida recount effort, he was on "LATE EDITION" earlier today, and I spoke to him about the advice that Dick Cheney offered Al Gore. His response was perhaps predictable, but listen to what Christopher said.


WARREN CHRISTOPHER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: In my own experience in these matters, Wolf, I've been in a contest like this, I've always tried to open myself to the possibility that the other side might win. And I think it would be very healthy if Secretary Cheney and the Governor Bush team would at least admit of that possibility. It would make for a better long-term relationship, I think.


THOMPSON: When the secretary talks about in a case like this -- there has never been a case like this. We're dealing with the presidency. We're dealing with the future of the nation. Clearly the vice president has his rights, and goodness knows he's taken full advantage of them. But this thing must come to an end within a reasonable time period now, and with these court decisions coming down I think we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And for the good of the country, I think that that's where we ought to get by the end of this week.

BLITZER: And when do you think -- it's speculative. You were at the Supreme Court Friday -- when will the high court, the highest court in the land, do you think, come out with its opinion, whatever its opinion is.

THOMPSON: Nobody knows that, but all of the experts are saying first part of this week. And I have no reason to argue with that. They know what's at stake.

On the other hand, what's going on in Tallahassee is very important, too. If the judge down there issues a ruling tonight or first thing in the morning, that might have some impact on the Supreme Court. If the judge decides not to personally or supervise a hand recount of 9,000 ballots, which is, I think, what he's going to decide not to do, that possibly could cause the Supreme Court to take a bit of a different view and punt the ball over to Congress or step back from it somewhat. I don't know. But I do believe we've got two important court decisions coming down this week, and I think that should and will resolve the matter.

BLITZER: Senator Fred Thompson, thank you so much for joining us.

And just this note to our viewers, we are keeping an eye on what's going on in the Leon County Circuit Court. They've taken a recess, awaiting final arguments from all sides in this case. We will, of course, go back to Leon County and this hearing, this courtroom, as soon as that begins.

But when we come back, we'll hear the Democratic response from Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a strong ally of Al Gore's.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: You're looking at a live picture in the courtroom in Leon County, the circuit court where Judge Sanders Sauls has called a recess. Once this recess ends, the lawyers for Al Gore and George W. Bush and other parties will have their opportunity to their final arguments in this hearing that's been going on this entire weekend, supposed to conclude yesterday but it's gone all day today.

Once it resumes, we, of course, will bring it to you live, but right now let's go to Senator Carl Levin of Michigan. He joins from bureau in Detroit.

You heard Senator Thompson say it was a good idea what Dick Cheney, the advice he offered Al Gore earlier today on "Meet the Press" that perhaps it's time for him to concede.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: I thought it was totally inappropriate, right in the middle of a legal challenge provided for by law in Florida, while they're in court, both sides arguing, for Mr. Cheney to suggest that the vice president concede. This legal challenge, which is being debated in court and which you'll hear more of tonight, is provided for by Florida law. That is the mechanism which is used in order to bring about a resolution.

And right during that challenge, it seems to me, was highly inappropriate for Cheney to say that the vice president should concede. It's just not constructive, and I don't think that kind of a comment has anyplace frankly in the middle of a court challenge.

HEMMER: The attorney for George W. Bush, Theodore Olson, was on "LATE EDITION" earlier today. He said, if the time is running out it's the fault of Al Gore and his lawyers for delaying the process as the legislature of Florida had envisaged.

Listen to what Ted Olson said earlier today.


THEODORE OLSON, BUSH CAMPAIGN ATTORNEY: The deadlines have been shifted. We've gone three weeks rather than one week into the protest phase of this election. Now we have a contest phase of this election which has been arbitrarily shortened because the positions that the Gore administration -- the Gore campaign took.

And we've got a very distorted process because we did not stick to the neutral principles and carefully developed timetables that existed before the election.


BLITZER: What about that, Senator Levin? It's all Al Gore's fault.

LEVIN: The vice president is doing exactly what Governor Bush would do, which is to go to court. Governor Bush went to the Supreme Court. He had a right to do it. Governor Bush went to federal court. He had a right to do it. Al Gore has a right to go to court. It's appropriate that these challenges be made.

It's amazing to me that we could have Mr. Olson argue in the same breath that it was arbitrary for the Supreme Court of Florida to shorten the time of the contest and at the same time say that the vice president should give up the contest and concede. That to me is utterly amazing. They're trying to have it exactly both ways. You can't argue that, no, no, don't extend the time for certification, as the vice president wanted, because then you're going to shorten the time for this contest and then say, oh, cut the contest short and concede. I've never heard such really inconsistent arguments made with such a straight face.

BLITZER: You know, Senator Mitch McConnell was also on our program earlier today. He echoed the same theme. He went a little bit further, though, saying that what Al Gore is doing by contesting the certified election in Florida, he was in effect, in his words, becoming the political Tonya Harding. I guess that means that he was anxious to win at any price, no matter the damage it cost to the country?

LEVIN: Well, the name-calling it seems to me is out of place. We have two institutions here which we have to rely on: the Supreme Court of the United States, the Supreme Court of Florida. They're going to make the decisions. I hope that Governor Bush is committed to abide by any Supreme Court decision in Florida which goes against him and not to try to end-run it and go to the Florida legislature. I haven't heard him say he will not try to end-run the Supreme Court of Florida.

I think the partisan comments from any side are not credible. The American public has confidence, the most confidence, in two institutions: the Supreme Court in Florida and the Supreme Court in the United States. There should be a commitment to abide by those decision, don't end-run it. This thing will be resolved, I believe, within a timely way and hopefully within a week.

But I think the harsh partisan rhetoric is not what the American people want to hear. They want to hear we have institutions which are working, that all votes will be counted. I think the American public is clear they want all valid votes counted, and I hope the court reaches that decision.

But if the Florida Supreme Court decides not to look at the valid votes which a manual recount could discern, then it seems to me we must accept that opinion of the Florida Supreme Court, those of us who support the vice president. But I hope Governor Bush's people will commit themselves to accept the Florida Supreme Court opinion as well.

BLITZER: Well...

LEVIN: I haven't heard that come from Governor Bush.

BLITZER: Well you're not hearing it also from some of his supporters, including the leadership of the Florida legislature. In fact, the speaker, the Republican speaker of the Florida House, Tom Feeney was on ABC earlier today.

I want you to listen to what he said, because a lot of people say what the Florida legislature does could be the insurance policy that George W. Bush has in his pocket if necessary.

Listen to this.


STATE REP. TOM FEENEY (R), FLORIDA SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Absent an action by the United States Supreme Court that resolves this entire matter and makes sure we don't have any contests or controversies that would prevent Florida from participating in the Electoral College, we will in my view have a special session in time to preserve the election and protect Florida's participation in selecting the next president.


BLITZER: Strongly signalling, Senator Levin, that the Florida legislature may just decide that they're going to send the electors to Washington to support Governor Bush irrespective of what the courts may decide.

LEVIN: It sounds like they may decide to try to end-run a Florida Supreme Court decision, should there be one favoring the manual recount of all valid ballots.

But I don't think that's going to be credible. The American public has confidence, I believe, in non-partisan institutions in this kind of situation, and that means the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court, and that's what I think will ultimately carry the day, whatever those two Supreme Court opinions are, the most important one probably being numerically in Florida, but very important in the United States Supreme Court both because a few hundred ballots could be impacted, also because of the momentum that it could give either one.

By the way, I haven't heard Governor Bush or his supporters say that if the lower court in Florida finds that there should be a manual recount, that they're not going to appeal that. They attack Vice President Gore for using the courts. They used the courts equally. They are the ones who started the Supreme Court case, as I said, and the federal court case. And I'd like to hear them say...

BLITZER: All right...

LEVIN: ... that they won't appeal if there's a finding against them by this lower court...

BLITZER: Senator...

LEVIN: ... I think both sides would appeal.

Senator Levin, thanks for joining us.

We're going to go back to the Leon County Circuit Court. Judge Sanders Sauls is now reconvening to hear final closing arguments.




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