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Nation looks to court for finality


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000

There will be no perfect ending.

Either the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the presidency as early as today, or the Florida Legislature and Congress will jump in with both feet and the battle will continue into January.

Now that would be a constitutional crisis.

As the world awaits for the Supreme Court's decision, most voters prefer that the justices determine whether George W. Bush or Al Gore becomes the nation's 43rd president. That may have something to do with spending too many nights watching members of Congress and the Legislature scream at each other on cable television.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll shows two of three voters believe the Supreme Court's ruling will be fair to both sides. It indicates that 58 percent of the voters have not changed their opinion of the court because it stopped the Florida recount, and it finds far less support for allowing Congress or the Florida Legislature to determine the winner of the state and the presidency.

Just 40 percent believe Congress should get involved, and only 33 percent want the Florida Legislature to take action.

The Republican legislative leaders in Tallahassee, especially those with eyes for moving up to higher offices, might want to review those numbers this morning while they await the Supreme Court's opinion.

"The cleanest cut right now would be the court," University of Texas political science professor Bruce Buchanan said Monday, "because everybody is ready to accept it. Most people would rather have a resolution than a favorable outcome at this point."

But there are risks in relying so heavily on the court to resolve the outcome of an election.

The court's most valuable asset is its independence. Its opinion, regardless of whether the recounts of Florida ballots are halted or allowed to continue, will test the public's confidence in an institution that has more credibility than either the executive or legislative branches.

By surprising most legal scholars and suspending the recounts Saturday afternoon, the court may already have lost some standing.

"I think the Supreme Court is expending a good deal of its capital here and looking like a naked, partisan political organization," said Martin Redish, a Northwestern University law professor.

It didn't help that Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a scathing response to Justice John Paul Stevens on Saturday that sounded awfully close to a Bush campaign release.

The court has long been accused of being political in landmark cases ranging from school desegregation to abortion. But there is a difference between philosophical leanings and partisan sniping. The tone of the opinions will be as important as their practical effect.

The reactions from the Bush and Gore camps and the political parties also will help sway public opinion.

The Florida Supreme Court has taken a beating from Republicans for the opinions that first allowed for the recounts and then ordered them to resume last week. There are efforts to test the waters for amending the state constitution to require justices to be elected rather than appointed by the governor. And it's a safe bet that the court will come under further attack by the Legislature next spring after the national media is long gone from Tallahassee.

The U.S. Supreme Court is more insulated from such gamesmanship. Its justices don't have to stand before the voters in a merit retention process like the state justices. But a concerted attack on the nation's highest court by the loser's forces would be just as unhealthy for the country.

A clear, strong court opinion would benefit a lot of politicians and institutions, regardless of which side it favors.

It could save the Florida Legislature from itself. House Republicans are determined to force a vote on another slate of Bush electors for the Electoral College today.

"Absent they actually tell us to stop, I think we will proceed," House Speaker Tom Feeney said Monday.

There will be a price to be paid next spring. This is not the sort of thing Republicans and Democrats fight over, then shake hands and move on to the next issue.

A well-crafted U.S. Supreme Court opinion could reduce the chances of that happening. It could provide some cover for Gov. Jeb Bush, who has the daunting task of steering a sharply divided state. It also could spare the country the ugly picture of an even more divided Congress arguing over who should move into the White House.

The court could even help the next president, who will need all the help he can get.

"I don't buy this argument that, because we've been through what we've been through, that neither one of these candidates can govern," former Secretary of State James Baker, who oversaw Bush's post-election battle in Florida, said over the weekend. "I think that once there is a clear winner that is decided and declared, you're going to see the country pull together behind that person."

The U.S. Supreme Court will help determine whether that's possible.

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