Justice's ruling unanimous, but not decisive

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 12/5/2000

ASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court, in an opinion that was not decisive for either George W. Bush or Al Gore, satisfied its own mandate to act unanimously, cautiously, and quickly in its first-ever ruling on a disputed presidential election.

In sending the case of Florida's disputed manual recount back to the state Supreme Court and asking it to clarify its authority for extending the recount deadline, the justices, who appeared divided in Friday's oral arguments, reached this consensus: They needed more information.

Bush adviser James A. Baker III characterized the opinion as a ''win,'' while Gore lawyer Laurence Tribe said his side achieved ''a considerable victory.'' Most constitutional scholars said neither side won, because the Supreme Court action was not final or far-reaching and, in fact, appeared carefully crafted to avoid a partisan result.

But what political fallout there was damaged Gore. He needed a win, not a draw, yesterday in Washington, because in Tallahassee he lost the first round of his contest over the certification for Bush of Florida's 25 electoral votes. Gore also is working against the calendar, and the US Supreme Court opinion yesterday extends, not ends, the legal maneuvering.

Scholars also noted that the Florida Supreme Court may be cautious in handling Gore's current appeal after the forceful reminder that its high-profile ruling and legal reasoning are under the microscope of the US Supreme Court.

Because Bush has already been certified the winner in Florida, the Supreme Court ruling to vacate, that is, to put on hold, the Florida Supreme Court's extension of the deadline has little legal consequence. But it was expected to give the presidential hopeful who prevailed a political and morale boost.

At the Texas governor's mansion, Bush said, ''We're pleased with the decision. I think America ought to be comforted to know that the highest court in the land is going to make sure the outcome of this election is a fair outcome.''

In Florida, Ron Klain, a close adviser to Gore, said the the US Supreme Court opinion was not good news or bad news; it was ''no news.''

''One way or another, this is going to be resolved by the Florida Supreme Court,'' Klain said.

The US Supreme Court's ruling, unanimous but unsigned by any of the justices, was also swift. The justices worked through the weekend to decide if, as Bush lawyers asserted, Florida's high court had violated federal law or the US Constitution when it extended the recount deadline from Nov. 14 to Nov. 26.

But the justices said it wasn't clear from the legal briefs or Friday's spirited 90-minute arguments. So, not sure if they were dealing with a federal violation or a case of a state court properly interpreting state law, they put the Florida ruling on hold, pending a clarification from the state Supreme Court.

''After reviewing the opinion of the Florida Supreme Court, we find that there is considerable uncertainty as to the precise grounds for'' its ''decision,'' the high court wrote in a seven-page opinion that was released unceremoniously by the court's public information office late yesterday morning.

The state Supreme Court, moving quickly to respond, called for the parties to file briefs by midday today, said court spokesman Craig Walters. ''The US Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. We do not ignore what they tell us.''

Procedurally, the US Supreme Court isn't obligated to review a response from the Florida's high court. However, either side could petition the justices to consider the case again on its merits and rule that the Florida court erred.

''Any future decision now by the'' Florida ''court now must be made in compliance with the Supreme Court, and any further action will be subject to Supreme Court review,'' Baker said, noting that Bush's margin of victory would grow from 537 to 930 votes if the court validated the original Nov. 14 deadline.

Tribe suggested that Gore came out ahead in the US Supreme Court because they had not found a compelling federal reason to overturn the Florida Supreme Court. Instead, he said, the justices' action was akin to sending a postcard home, ''and it says, `The weather's great up here. Now why don't you explain what you're doing?'

''What the Bush campaign had asked for was not a postcard home saying, `Rewrite it,''' said Tribe, who is a Harvard Law School professor. ''They had asked the US Supreme Court to reverse outright the decision of the Florida court.''

In fact, the court did what almost nobody predicted they would do, but what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in Friday's arguments, had suggested: send the case back to the Florida court to clarify how it had reached its deadline-extending decision.

Had the Florida court, relying on the state contitution, trumped the state election law or the US Code, which would turn it into a federal case and make it reviewable by the US Supreme Court? Or was the Florida court operating within accepted judicial boundaries, reconciling one state law that set a recount deadline and another that allowed recounts in populous counties that would not be able to meet such deadlines?

''Specifically, we are unclear as to the extent to which the Florida Supreme Court saw the Florida Constitution as circumscribing the Legislature's authority under Article II'' of the US Constitution, the court wrote.

The justices said ''we are also unclear'' whether the Florida court paid heed to the federal statute that gives state legislatures the power to make election law and determine how presidential electors will be chosen.

Justice Antonin Scalia said Friday that if the Florida court had used the voting-rights provisions in the state constitution to justify extending the recount deadline, it not only usurped the Legislature's prerogative in making election law, but it erred by putting the Florida Constitution above US law.

He cited the 1892 case of McPherson v. Blacker, where the Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution has primacy over any state constitution.

Legal scholars said that in yesterday's opinion the justices sketched a fairly direct road map that the Florida Supreme Court could follow to ultimately have its ruling upheld by the US Supreme Court.

''What the justices are saying to the Florida court is, `Go back and tell us that you didn't rely on the state constitution or didn't change the state law,''' said Robert Justin Lipkin, a professor of constitutional law at Widener University School of Law.

''If the court can explain what it did based on a statutory interpretation, then maybe the Supreme Court will say `we have no place in this case.'''

Lipkin suspects the court was deadlocked on the merits of the case and instead of arguing for days or releasing a split decision, decided to send the case back to Florida. ''Time was a very important factor,'' he said.