WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday set aside a state high court ruling that permitted selective manual recounts in Florida's contested presidential election, and sent the case back "for further proceedings."
Acting with unusual haste, the high court said that despite arguments by lawyers for both George W. Bush and Al Gore, "there is sufficient reason for us to decline at this time to review the federal questions asserted to be present" in the nation's contested presidential election.
The ruling came as a state judge in Florida was preparing to rule on a more tangible issue -- whether to grant Gore's motion to overturn Bush's certified 537-vote victory in the state that stands to pick the next president. Within minutes, Judge N. Sanders Sauls relayed word his own ruling would be delayed while he attempts to determine whether the high court's opinion has any impact on the case before him.
The state case is "on hold," Terre Cass, a circuit court spokeswoman told reporters in Tallahassee, Fla.
The practical impact of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was unclear in Florida, where Bush was certified the winner by 537 votes 10 days ago, and where Gore has been waging a battle ever since to overturn that certification.
The action was not a ruling for Bush on the merits of his appeal. But by setting aside the Florida Supreme Court's ruling, it could place in doubt the gains Gore made through the hand recount in the days after Nov. 14. That was the original deadline for certification set by Secretary of State Katherine Harris before the state Supreme Court ordered her to accept updated results for several more days.
The court said it was not certain to what extent the Florida court saw the state constitution as limiting state lawmakers' authority to choose presidential electors, or how much consideration it gave to an 1887 federal law that makes states' choice of presidential electors binding on Congress as long as disputes were resolved under laws enacted before the election.
"The judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida is therefore vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion," the justices said in an unsigned opinion. Gore adviser Greg Simon, who is helping with on-the-ground activities in Florida, called the U.S. Supreme Court ruling "just a timeout."
"This is not a penalty or anything else. This doesn't move the ball either way. This just stops the clock for a video replay."
"It's an academic exercise on behalf of the Supreme Court and has no impact on the hand recount," Simon said.
Bush lawyer, 5th graf pvs
Bush lawyer Fred H. Bartlit said he had not yet seen the ruling but was familiar with it. "Apparently what they said as near as we can make out is that they can't figure out what the Florida Supreme Court based its decision on, whether Constitutional grounds or Florida state laws."
The court held a dramatic argument session Friday after agreeing a week earlier to hear Bush's appeal of the Florida court ruling, which extended the deadline for reporting recount results from Nov. 14 to Nov. 26.
The justices had appeared deeply divided over whether there were grounds to overrule the state court.
Bush's lawyer, Theodore Olson, argued that the Florida Supreme Court's decision to allowed the extended recount "overturned the carefully enacted plan" by state legislators for resolving election disputes.
He contended the state court violated the Constitution and an 1887 federal law that makes states' choice of presidential electors binding on Congress as long as disputes were resolved under laws enacted before the election.
Gore lawyer Laurence Tribe said the recount process merely was "like looking more closely at the film of a photo finish. It's nothing extraordinary." He added, "Why tell people the count if you won't count it?"
Gore's advisers were telling allies after the argument that the vice president would continue pressing his election contest in Florida courts regardless of what the Supreme Court decided.
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified Bush the winner in Florida on Nov. 26 after manual recounts in a few Democratic-leaning counties that Gore had sought. The state Supreme Court had ordered those recounts to proceed beyond the Nov. 14 date that Harris cited as the deadline fixed in state law.
A key issue before the Supreme Court was whether the case involved any federal issue that warranted overturning Florida's highest court. In recent years, the Supreme Court has carried out what some observers call a states' rights revolution, tilting the federal-state balance toward the states in a series of 5-4 votes with Chief Justice William Rehnquist leading the majority.
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