Last Act

Boston Globe editorial, 12/8/2000

ICE PRESIDENT Al Gore's cause is just, but he can claim few victories in the 30-day legal battle for Florida and the presidency. If the Florida Supreme Court decides against his appeal of a circuit judge's dismissal of his election contests, Gore should stop his appeals there and concede.

In our view, Gore has one more bite of the apple: Florida's top court declaring that the recounts he seeks must go forward over the objection of circuit court Judge N. Sanders Sauls. Practically, the ruling needs to come with a reasonable standard employed for counting partial impressions on the ballots and enough time and resources to complete the recounts by Dec. 12.

The parallel cases wending through Seminole and Martin counties that could turn the election results by throwing out thousands of absentee ballots, most cast for Governor George W. Bush, would be a cheap way to win. Because the tampered ballot applications cannot be segregated from those that were filed properly, all 15,000 absentee ballots would have to be destroyed, a remedy nearly as bad as the harm.

In his ruling Monday, Judge Sauls denied the only chance to determine what he said the Gore forces needed to prove: ''a reasonable probability'' that the results would be different were it not for the many irregularities documented by Gore. In a kind of pretzel logic, allowing the recount became the only way to prove the recount was warranted, and Sauls would not take one step without the other.

Yesterday lawyers for Gore made a strong case that Sauls had misread the law in requiring the ''reasonable probability'' standard; showing that the ballots in the contested counties ''place in doubt'' the outcome is also language in Florida law and should be sufficient. They also scored when arguing that Sauls erred in stating a recount of the entire state would be necessary, even where there was no protest.

But Sauls had issued a stinging rebuke of every claim Gore's lawyers made in contesting the Florida vote. And he made several ''findings of fact'' that are especially hard to overturn on appeal.

The US Supreme Court also cast a shadow over Florida's high court, suggesting they may not have had the right to uphold the extended recounts in the first place. The Florida court's uncertaintly was evident in the opening questions that probed whether the US Constitution doesn't give ''full plenary powers'' to the state Legislature to choose electors, a power that cannot be eroded even by the Florida constitution or its highest court.

The Republicans have played this legal campaign masterfully, using their full quiver of tactics to stall or derail the recounts, letting the clock run out. They may even have gamed the US Supreme Court, which issued a temporizing decision asking for clarification from the lower court, perhaps in the hope that the Florida courts would make a more definitive ruling unnecessary.

But determining what really happened on election night is not a sports event or even a political campaign. It is a sober matter deserving the highest intentions on both sides. Bush too should abide by the Florida high court's decision and not appeal or stand in the way of the swiftest possible recounts if that is what the court orders.

The courts may never be able to provide a perfect outcome for what is so clearly an imperfect election. But they can confer a sense of fairness and propriety. Both candidates and all Americans should find a way to accept their verdict.