Supreme Court lays out reasons for tossing case back to Fla.

By Globe Staff and Wires, 12/5/2000

Partial text of a decision yesterday by the US Supreme Court on the Florida election.

The Supreme Court of the State of Florida interpreted its elections statutes in proceedings brought to require manual recounts of ballots, and the certification of the recount results, for votes cast in the quadrennial Presidential election held on November 7, 2000. Governor George W. Bush, Republican candidate for the Presidency, filed a petition for certiorari to review the Florida Supreme Court decision. We granted certiorari on two of the questions presented by petitioner: whether the decision of the Florida Supreme Court, by effectively changing the State's elector appointment procedures after election day, violated the Due Process Clause or 3 U. S. C. 5, and whether the decision of that court changed the manner in which the State's electors are to be selected, in violation of the legislature's power to designate the manner for selection under Art. II, 1, cl. 2 of the United States Constitution.

On November 8, 2000, the day following the Presidential election, the Florida Division of Elections reported that Governor Bush had received 2,909,135 votes, and respondent Democrat Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., had received 2,907,351, a margin of 1,784 in Governor Bush's favor. Under Florida statute, because the margin of victory was equal to or less than one-half of one percent of the votes cast, an automatic machine recount occurred. The recount resulted in a much smaller margin of victory for Governor Bush. Vice President Gore then exercised his statutory right to submit written requests for manual recounts to the canvassing board of any county. ... He requested recounts in four counties: Volusia, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade. The parties urged conflicting interpretations of the Florida Election Code respecting the authority of the canvassing boards, the Secretary of State ... and the Elections Canvassing Commission.

On November 14, in an action brought by Volusia County, and joined by the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board, Vice President Gore, and the Florida Democratic Party, the Florida Circuit Court ruled that the statutory seven-day deadline was mandatory, but that the Volusia board could amend its returns at a later date. The court further ruled that the Secretary, after considering all attendant facts and circumstances ... could exercise her discretion in deciding whether to include the late amended returns in the statewide certification. The Secretary responded by issuing a set of criteria by which she would decide whether to allow a late filing. The Secretary ordered that, by 2 p.m. the following day, November 15, any county desiring to forward late returns submit a written statement of the facts and circumstances justifying a later filing. Four counties submitted statements and, after reviewing the submissions, the Secretary determined that none justified an extension of the filing deadline. On November 16, the Florida Democratic Party and Vice President Gore filed an emergency motion in the state court, arguing that the Secretary had acted arbitrarily and in contempt of the court's earlier ruling.

The following day, the court denied the motion, ruling that the Secretary had not acted arbitrarily and had exercised her discretion in a reasonable manner consistent with the court's earlier ruling. The Democratic Party and Vice President Gore appealed to the First District Court of Appeal, which certified the matter to the Florida Supreme Court. That court accepted jurisdiction and sua sponte entered an order enjoining the Secretary and the Elections Canvassing Commission from finally certifying the results of the election and declaring a winner until further order of that court. The Supreme Court ... issued its decision on November 21. ...

As the court saw the matter, there were two principal questions: whether a discrepancy between an original machine return and a sample manual recount resulting from the way a ballot has been marked or punched is an ''error in vote tabulation'' justifying a full manual recount; and how to reconcile what it spoke of as two conflicts in Florida's election laws: (a) between the time frame for conducting a manual recount under Fla. Stat. 102.166 (2000) and the time frame for submitting county returns under 102.111 and 102.112, and (b) between 102.111, which provides that the Secretary ''shall ... ignor(e)'' late election returns, and 102.112, which provides that she ''may ... ignor(e)'' such returns.

With regard to the first issue, the court held that, under the plain text of the statute, a discrepancy between a sample manual recount and machine returns due to the way in which a ballot was punched or marked did constitute an error in vote tabulation sufficient to trigger the statutory provisions for a full manual recount.

With regard to the second issue, the court ... turned to the questions whether and when the Secretary may ignore late manual recounts. The court relied in part upon the right to vote set forth in the Declaration of Rights of the Florida Constitution in concluding that late manual recounts could be rejected only under limited circumstances.

The court thus imposed a deadline of November 26, at 5 p.m., for a return of ballot counts. The court further directed the Secretary to accept manual counts submitted prior to that deadline. As a general rule, this Court defers to a state court's interpretation of a state statute. But in the case of a law enacted by a state legislature applicable not only to elections to state offices, but also to the selection of Presidential electors, the legislature is not acting solely under the authority given it by the people of the State, but by virtue of a direct grant of authority made under Art. II, 1, cl. 2, of the United States Constitution.

That provision reads: ''Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress. ...''

Although we did not address the same question petitioner raises here, in McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U. S. 1, 25 (1892), we said: ''Art. II, 1, cl. 2 does not read that the people or the citizens shall appoint, but that each State shall; and if the words in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, had been omitted, it would seem that the legislative power of appointment could not have been successfully questioned in the absence of any provision in the state constitution in that regard.

Hence the insertion of those words, ''while operating as a limitation upon the State in respect of any attempt to circumscribe the legislative power, cannot be held to operate as a limitation on that power itself.''

There are expressions in the opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida that may be read to indicate that it construed the Florida Election Code without regard to the extent to which the Florida Constitution could, consistent with Art. II, 1, cl. 2, ''circumscribe the legislative power.'' ...

The parties before us agree that whatever else may be the effect of this section, it creates a ''safe harbor'' for a State insofar as congressional consideration of its electoral votes is concerned. If the state legislature has provided for final determination of contests or controversies by a law made prior to election day, that determination shall be conclusive if made at least six days prior to said time of meeting of the electors. The Florida Supreme Court cited 3 U. S. C. 110 in a footnote of its opinion. ... Since 5 contains a principle of federal law that would assure finality of the State's determination if made pursuant to a state law in effect before the election, a legislative wish to take advantage of the ''safe harbor'' would counsel against any construction of the Election Code that Congress might deem to be a change in the law.

After reviewing the opinion of the Florida Supreme Court, we find ''that there is considerable uncertainty as to the precise grounds for the decision.'' Minnesota v. National Tea Co., 309 U. S. 551, 555 (1940). This is sufficient reason for us to decline at this time to review the federal questions asserted to be present. ...

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 Art. II, 1, cl. 2. We are also unclear as to the consideration the Florida Supreme Court accorded to 3 U. S. C. 5. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida is therefore vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings. ...