TALLAHASSEE, FLA. The Florida Supreme Court breathed new life into Democrat Al Gore's quest for the presidency Friday, awarding him hundreds of votes and ordering a new manual recount that could propel him to victory over Republican George W. Bush.
The 4-3 decision reopened the battle over how to count dimples and chads, emboldened the Republican majority in the Florida Legislature to intervene and increased the likelihood that the election dispute will spill into a divided Congress early next year.
The majority of the justices concluded that hand checking thousands of ballots that failed to register votes for president in machine counts was the only fair way to resolve the fiercely disputed election. But in a stinging dissent, Chief Justice Charles T. Wells said the ruling "propels this country and this state into an unprecedented and unnecessary constitutional crisis."
Bush's lawyers said they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and immediately sought orders from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to block the counties from starting any recounts.
Bush's lawyers argued that the Florida high court ruling was unconstitutional and that the electoral process could suffer "material harm" if the recounts were allowed to proceed. The circuit court in Atlanta said it would consider Bush's appeal today.
The Florida ruling pulled Gore back from the brink of defeat just four days before the deadline for states to name their presidential electors.
"Two strikes, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and Gore gets a hit," exulted Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, one of the Democrats who had said in advance that an adverse ruling could end Gore's hopes.
But rather than settle the issue, the Florida high court inflamed partisan passions and left the election more muddled than ever 31 days after voters went to the polls to select a new president.
Within hours of the court ruling, legal teams for both candidates were back in a lower Florida court arguing over how to deal with the recount of as many as 64,000 ballots statewide.
The court's opinion directed county officials to hand count ballots that did not register a presidential vote when they were counted by machines. The court also cut Bush's lead in Florida by 383 votes by adding manually recounted ballots from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties that were not included in the certified state tally because they were counted after a Nov. 26 deadline set by the state Supreme Court.
The court's action left Bush clinging to either a 547-vote lead or a 154-vote margin, depending the outcome of a dispute between the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, which has asked the state court to clarify its authority for including late recounts in the state's tally.
"The legislature has mandated that no vote shall be ignored 'if there is a clear indication of the intent of the voter' on the ballot," the court majority wrote. "The clear message from this legislative policy is that every citizen's vote be counted whenever possible, whether in an election for a local commissioner or an election for president of the United States."
But in a clue that the internal debate among the justices sometimes went beyond state statute and legal precedent, Wells wrote in his dissent: "We must have the self discipline not to become embroiled in political contests whenever a judicial majority subjectively concludes to do so because the majority perceives it is 'the right thing to do.' "
The court did not specify how long the recounts will take or how election officials should determine voters' intent. Previous recounts sparked sharp disagreements over how to deal with such ballot minutiae as dimpled chads when the rectangle next to a candidate's name was dented, but not detached, from a punch card ballot.
Equally uncertain was which candidate would benefit from the hand recounts. Unlike the previous manual recounts conducted at Gore's request only in predominantly Democratic counties the court-ordered recounts would include some heavily Republican areas.
"Let the count begin," said a relieved William Daley, Gore's campaign chairman. "Then Florida and America will know with certainty who has really won the presidency."
Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III, who is leading Bush's legal team in Florida, blamed Gore for the continued uncertainty.
"This is what happens when for the first time in modern history, a candidate resorts to lawsuits to try to overturn the outcome of an election for president," he said. "It is very sad for Florida, for the nation, and for our democracy."
Others questioned whether the recounts could be completed before the Electoral College meets Dec. 18 in Washington to select the next president.
"I think we're going to reach the deadline for finalizing the election before this count will be over," Rep. Roy Blount, R-Mo., a Bush ally, told CNN.
Back to the courthouses
The court's decision partly reversed a lower court ruling Monday by Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls that had thrown out Gore's challenge to Bush's victory. Sauls promptly recused himself from overseeing a manual recount of roughly 9,000 computer punch card ballots in Miami-Dade County, throwing the Leon County Courthouse into turmoil late Friday.
The task of supervising the recount then fell to Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, who ruled against Democratic challenges in two presidential election lawsuits in recent days.
During a hearing Friday night, Republicans suggested that Lewis himself should count all the ballots, the judge replied: "What's your Plan B?" After hearing two hours of argument, Lewis called a recess to consult "a higher authority."
A Gore victory after the recount would raise the possibility that Florida could choose competing slates electors one as a result of a recount that handed the election to Gore and another selected by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. That would send the dispute over which electors to seat to Congress, where Gore could cast the tie-breaking vote for himself in the Senate but Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives.
If the issue is still unresolved on Jan. 20, when the Constitution says President Clinton must leave office, then House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., would become president.
In convening the Florida Legislature in special session, Republican leaders said they wanted to avoid the possibility that the state would lose its right to participate in the presidential election because of ongoing legal disputes.
It would be the first time the Legislature appointed a slate of electors since 1876.
"Much of the world is watching," said House Speaker Tom Feeney as he gaveled the state House into session. "History is watching us as well."
In the meantime, the battle lines hardened on Capitol Hill as members of Congress prepared for a fight over Florida's electoral votes.
"This judicial aggression must not stand," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas said in denouncing the Florida ruling.