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Update from Leon County Circuit Court on Decision Releases in Presidential Election Cases

Aired December 8, 2000 - 11:01 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Today could be a turning point in the Florida legal battle over the presidential election. We're expecting, at any moment, to hear from Leon County Circuit Court administrators there in Tallahassee, the state capitol. They'll be updating us on the status of this rulings in this week's two lawsuits. One involves Florida's Martin County, the other Seminole County. The suits seek to throw out thousands of absentee ballots.

ANDRIA HALL, CNN ANCHOR: And there's more; Florida Supreme Court justices are considering an appeal by Democrat Al Gore, aimed at forcing a hand recount of 14,000 disputed ballots. Within the past hour, Bush attorneys filed a rare clarification telling the justices they have no authority to grant the Gore appeal. No word on when the court might issue a ruling there.

KAGAN: And even with all the court action, there is action in the state legislature of Florida as well, where lawmakers begin a historic special session just about an hour from now. It is the first modern-day meeting of a state legislature to choose electors.

A big, big day in Florida.

HALL: And we just gave you the "Reader's Digest" version there; the snapshot of where things stand in Florida at the moment.

KAGAN: For the latest, let's bring in my partner Bill Hemmer once again in Tallahassee.

Bill, good morning once again.

BILL HEMMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey Daryn, Andria, good morning to you guys as well.

You know, we were just talking about the waiting game we're playing right now; and truly one gets the sense that there is this storm cloud on the horizon that's moving closer and closer to us. We do know it's going to rain and open up at some point, but what it rains is still the wide-open question that we're all waiting for here in Florida's capitol.

Let's start, now, at Leon County Circuit Court and CNN's Mark Potter. Again, we're awaiting those two court workers to come to the microphone and give us, possibly, more direction as to where we are headed on Martin and Seminole Counties.

But Mark, you're over there, bring us up to date; good morning again.

MARK POTTER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, we were just told by the court that they'll be out in a couple of minutes to give us the details on how these rulings will be announced. The people that we'll be hearing from are Terre Cass, the court administrator; Doug Smith, the public information officer.

What we know now is that Judge Terry Lewis in the Martin County case is expected to issue his ruling sometime in the noon hour. Judge Nikki Ann Clark from Seminole County, at last word, was saying that she would issue a ruling sometime today, but there was no firm commitment as to when that would be. Now, maybe in a couple of minutes, when the administrators come out here, we will find out more on what they plan to do.

There was some talk in the courthouse that they would try to get the rulings issued at the same time, but we don't know if they're able to work that out. Judge Clark may have a little harder time doing that because her case went about six hours longer than Judge Lewis' case yesterday -- it finished up late in the afternoon; and that's the Seminole County case.

At issue here, just to review very briefly, is the question of whether a total of up to 25,000 absentee ballots should be thrown out because of alleged irregularities in the handling of absentee ballot applications by members of the Republican Party and election officials in Seminole and Martin Counties. The plaintiffs say that the law says that in this case those ballots must be thrown out because of their allegation that there were illegalities, that there was a conspiracy to aid the Republican Party and to affect the election.

The defendants say there was nothing done wrong, no conspiracy, no illegalities and no reason to throw out one vote. And we heard that issue argued yesterday before the two judges in the closing arguments by the attorneys; and very different opinions, and the judges have to decide not only whether there was something that was done wrong, but whether the wrongdoing, if they find that, indeed, there was such a thing, is enough to warrant throwing out thousands of ballots of voters who claim that they did nothing wrong. They knew nothing about this and certainly would not want their votes thrown out.

And that's the big hurdle that the judges are going to have to overcome if they decide to throw these votes out. But both raised questions about whether it would actually be legal and, certainly, under these circumstances and with these facts, to do that -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Mark, as we continue to look at this live picture here from circuit court from inside and behind you, where you are over there; let's talk more about the remedy in this case, because anybody you talk to says the key in this case is that remedy.

As you were mentioning, do you take them all and throw them out, do you take a portion, or is the case dismissed in its entirety. And we may have a better indication -- normally they've been working pretty punctually over there, and they've been on time, basically coming to the microphones.

And as we say that, here they are: Terre Cass and Doug Smith.

TERRE CASS, LEON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT: With me is Doug Smith, our public information officer. He's going to give you an advisory update on where we stand right now.

DOUG SMITH, LEON COUNTY COURT SPOKESMAN: Good morning. We've had a chance to confer with both judges, and at 12:30 today we will be releasing both opinions, down here in the rotunda. The judges are going to prepare a short statement for each of those rulings -- I'm sorry, it's not an opinion, it's a ruling -- and Terre Cass will read that, which should divulge the substance of each of those rulings.

So at 12:30, right here, we should have them both.

QUESTION: Are you going to have the full decisions, though, down here?

SMITH: We will have the full decisions in paper format immediately after the announcement. That is correct. Down here in the rotunda, back behind us.

QUESTION: Do we know if the judges conferred with each other?

SMITH: I still haven't had a chance to offer that question to them, so I cannot tell you at this point whether or not they've conferred. I can only assume that they have, but I do not know that first hand.

QUESTION: On the Internet at 12:30 as well?

SMITH: It will be on the Internet as soon as possible after 12:30. Obviously, they have to scan the documents in and make them available up onto the web site. But they have assured us that as expediently as possible they will have both of those available on the web site.

QUESTION: So can we assume that the decisions, that they're just being printed now and typed up, they've actually made their decisions and it's just...

SMITH: They're in the process of editing those rulings right now.

QUESTION: Will the attorneys be here to receive that as well, do you know?

SMITH: We have asked that the attorneys come up there. We have to release it to them as well. But they will be given the information at the same time that we release it. They will actually receive it technically before you all do receive it, but they will be here at a place where you guys can't get to them. QUESTION: Will they be available for questions after?

SMITH: I'm certain they will. We'll make it available.

CASS: Yes. We will ask them to come down here to the rotunda to give any press statements, the same as we have done in the past.

SMITH: Yes.

QUESTION: You're going to read statements over and above the decisions?

SMITH: The judges have asked -- they're going to prepare a statement for us to read to you all.

QUESTION: In addition to the written...

SMITH: In addition to the written opinion. I am assuming that those statements will divulge the intent of those rulings.

QUESTION: Will we get copies of those statements (inaudible)?

SMITH: I'm sure we can make those available to you. We may not have copies immediately, but we should read them verbatim.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

CASS: No, the judges will not, will not answer any questions.

SMITH: The judges will not answer any questions. They will not be available for questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

SMITH: We have not made the determination as to the order as of yet. We'll just confer with the judges and we will allow them to tell us which one they would like released first and second.

CASS: Or it may be just one that has combined statement.

SMITH: Or it may be a combined statement that has both. That is correct.

CASS: Might have both on it.

QUESTION: Can you confirm reports that 12,000 ballots which were in the court's possession here were moved to the Supreme Court yesterday?

SMITH: Yes.

CASS: Yes. Let me give you some information on that. On the ballots that were taken over to the Supreme Court, that was plaintiff's exhibit number 45, and that was the under/over votes. The clerk put them together and had them delivered to the Supreme Court yesterday. QUESTION: Did the Supreme Court request that?

CASS: That's part of the appeal process, it is an exhibit.

QUESTION: All the 12,000 ballots or just some of them?

CASS: No, all of the ones, over/under votes were taken over as part of the exhibit.

QUESTION: Aren't there 13,300?

CASS: I don't know the exact number, but if you look at the exhibit list you will find that.

QUESTION: Did the Supreme Court directly request that from here?

CASS: No. That is part of the process. Any of the exhibits that go up on -- if the case goes up on appeal, the exhibits go with it.

QUESTION: Did either Judge Clark or Judge Lewis confer with the Supreme Court at all, you know...

CASS: We have no knowledge of that.

SMITH: We're not aware of that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

CASS: OK. Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you very much. Thank you.

HEMMER: One cannot be more clear with direction than that. Less than 90 minutes away we'll get the rulings on both Martin and Seminole counties; that's the word by Terre Cass and Doug Smith. And if it works like it has in the past, again, Terre Cass will go ahead and read the ruling from both judges in front of the bank of microphones there.

Back to Mark Potter, again.

Mark, I guess we wait now; but now we know it's only an hour and a half from now.

POTTER: Yes, now we're on a firm stand-by as opposed to a loose stand-by; we now know when we're going to get this answer. We also know that we're going to hear from both judges at once. Not in person; we will hear the essence of their rulings read to us by the court administrator.

So after a couple of weeks of pretrial activity, two very long days of trial, lots of spin outside the courtroom, we're going to hear from the people who matter most in this now, and those are the two judges, Terry Lewis in the Martin County case, and Judge Nikki Ann Clark in the Seminole case. Now my colleague Gary Tuchman joins us. He's been in the courtroom through all of this.

And what's the core issue that these judges have had to wrestle with? I understand they're still editing it -- they're not quite done. But this is not an easy -- just a simple answer that they have to come up with. There are several things they have to deal with, right?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, both cases are very similar. They both involve absentee ballot applications that were allegedly filled out with voter ID numbers by Republican workers.

But the differences between the two cases, aside from that there from two different parts of the state of Florida, is that in the Martin County case it was alleged that Republican workers took the applications outside of the office. In the Seminole County case, the allegation is that Republican workers came in the office for up to three weeks to fill out these IDs.

But the problem the judges have is, they could decide that the democratic plaintiffs proved their case, that this was wrong; but they could also, at the same time, say that the remedy to take votes away, to throw out absentee ballots, is not fair. So that's something very important to keep in mind when you're listening to these decisions at 12:30 Eastern time. You may first hear that this is a victory for the democratic plaintiffs, but that the remedy is not to take votes away, just a slap on the hand. That is something that could, conceivably happen. That's what I'd be listening for when we hear the courts spokespeople read these decision.

POTTER: And that was really at the core of the arguments yesterday. There is disagreement over what the facts mean. They agree on the facts, but there is an interpretive disagreement; but the real argument is -- what really counts if you're Al Gore or George W. Bush or their representatives is -- what do we do about those ballots?

So that's a very difficult thing for the judge to have to do, and it's quite a hurdle to say, I'm going throw out thousands and thousands of Florida votes.

TUCHMAN: Many of you may be wondering, why are the Democrats even asking for votes to be thrown out in the first place; and the reason, they say, is this: Everyone acknowledges there's no problem with the ballots, but there's no way to match up the ballot applications with the ballots that were counted. So that's why they're saying that the whole pool is poisoned and that's why all the applications would have to be thrown out. That's their allegation.

POTTER: OK, Gary, thank you very much. And we'll standby until 12:30 Eastern time, about an hour and 17 minutes from now; and we'll hear from both judges, their rulings in the Martin County and Seminole County absentee ballot cases.

Bill, back to you.

HEMMER: All right Mark, thank you very much; Mark Potter, Gary Tuchman.

Now David Cardwell, back with us live here in Tallahassee, let's bring in once again here.

We know at 12:30 local time we're going to get an answer on this. Your thoughts, feelings right now?

CARDWELL: Well, first thing I thought was, everything has been a bit unusual during this process, and here it is again. It is very unusual for two circuit judges to confer with each other on two separate cases before them at the time. It may have been nothing more than coordinating the release of their decisions to be done simultaneously; but Judge Lewis mentioned yesterday he was going to confer with Judge Clark, and if it was about a question of law so that they, perhaps they wanted to kind of talk to each other about that, that would be one thing. But if they talked about issues of fact, that would be very unusual -- very unusual.

HEMMER: And the heart of this case really goes to remedy: What do you do with 25,000 ballots in question? Do they all go out window? Does a portion go out the window? Does the case go out the window?

And, I guess ultimately, these judges are trying to decide if the punishment fits the crime?

CARDWELL: And we've had several court decisions, including Florida Supreme Court decisions over the past 20 years that have found that all of the absentee ballots had to be thrown out and go on just the Election Day count. But that's where we had cases that there was fraud -- that there was some sort of wrongdoing: vote buying, illegal votes cast that was so rampant, so pervasive that, as the court said, they couldn't figure out which were good and which were bad, so they threw out all the absentee ballots.

Here it's acknowledged it's a very small percentage of the overall absentee ballots that are at question because of the applications having been improperly filled out, as was alleged. So does that now justify throwing them all out, or do you just try to throw out a number equal to the questionable applications?

HEMMER: Clarify something for me, also -- shifting gears just a little bit here -- Terre Cass mentioned that some ballots, a portion of the ballots that were brought up from southeastern Florida have been taken to the state Supreme Court. Would the justices, through their deliberations, go through those ballots? Could they do that?

CARDWELL: They could have if they wanted to. When you have an appeal, all the evidence that is introduced at the trial level goes with what we call the record -- the record goes to the appellate court to have all the evidence there in the court file at the Supreme Court. So those ballots were physically moved to the state Supreme Court. Any justice who wants to review the evidence could go through those ballots if they wanted to.

HEMMER: I'm getting this picture in my head, and tell me if I'm completely wrong on this: Is it possible the seven justices are holding those ballots up before them right now in their deliberations?

CARDWELL: It's possible; I don't think it's probable, but it's possible. They could be sitting there and passing them around, all seven of them.

HEMMER: Not here to start rumors, just looking for the clarification, if nothing else.

David Cardwell, thanks, standby here, OK.

12:30 local time in Tallahassee -- again, that's when the word will come down from Leon County Circuit Court. Again, two very critical cases right now, and we are standing by, again, for the third critical case as well -- that's the state Supreme Court. When that decision may come is still an open issue.

Back to Atlanta, more with Daryn and Andria now.

HALL: Thanks Bill.

KAGAN: Thank you very much.

I think 31 days into this we've learned to think that anything is possible, absolutely. We're also getting word that the Bush campaign has filed an additional brief with the Florida state Supreme Court talking about some of the questions that were before them yesterday. We'll have more on that from our Susan Candiotti just ahead.

First of all, though, we take a break.

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