Washington A U.S. Supreme Court as divided as the nation's voters ruled for George W. Bush in the Florida presidential election case Tuesday night, reversing a state court decision that had ordered new recounts sought by Al Gore.
In an extraordinary late-night decision that unfolded on national television, the justices said the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court violated equal rights and there was not enough time to conduct a new effort that would meet constitutional muster.
"Because it is evident that any recount seeking to meet the Dec. 12 date will be unconstitutional ... we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering the recount to proceed," the court said.
The campaigns, Bush and Gore alike, were poring over the complex and detailed ruling, which came five weeks to the day after the presidential election. Florida's 25 electoral votes would decide the winner.
On Monday, Gore's Democratic running mate, Joseph Lieberman, had said that if the Supreme Court "basically overrules the Florida Supreme Court ... that's probably the end of it."
Gore lawyer Laurence Tribe told NBC-TV he disagreed with the decision, but "I think the courts' place in our lives is such that we all should rally around even if we disagree with the results."
The court's unsigned opinion said seven justices agreed that there were constitutional problems with the recount ordered by the Florida court, but that they disagreed on the remedy.
"It is obvious that the recount cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirements of equal protection and due process without substantial additional work," the court said.
But the majority said that because Florida lawmakers intended in effect to complete the choosing of electors by Dec. 12 an order requiring a new recount "could not be part of an appropriate" remedy.
The court issued its ruling in an unsigned opinion. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas went further in a separate opinion, saying the Florida Supreme Court also violated the Constitution and federal law in ordering the recount.
In a blistering dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens called the Bush legal appeal a "federal assault" on the laws of the state of Florida.
"Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today's decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law," Stevens wrote in a dissent joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Also dissenting was Justice David Souter.
Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy did not sign any separate opinion, but their votes were counted in the main unsigned opinion.
Without a recount, the certification of Bush as the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes _ and thus the presidency _ would stand.
In Florida, meanwhile, the state House approved a resolution that would send the Bush electors to the Electoral College if he lost in the high court.
"The 2000 presidential election is spiraling out of control and we must stop it now," Republican Rep. Paula Dockery said during a heated debate in Tallahassee over GOP plans to select electors loyal to Bush. The Florida House passed the resolution, 79-41, and the Senate moved toward a possible vote on Wednesday.
A few blocks away, Gore's options were reduced further when the Florida Supreme Court refused to disqualify thousands of absentee votes, many of them for Bush. Democratic attorneys had challenged the ballot applications, and Gore had expressed sympathy with the case.
The ruling meant the U.S. Supreme Court was Gore's last stand.
"It's down to game, set and perhaps match," said Bush ally Bill Owens, the Republican governor of Colorado.
About 100 demonstrators gathered outside the nation's high court in Washington, carrying signs and often arguing among themselves. Even the Man of Steel didn't think the wait was so super; Scott LoBaido of New York, dressed as Superman, lugged a two-sided sign proclaiming this was "The End" and it was time to say "Good Night, Al. The Party Is Over."
Tuesday was a deadline of sorts for states to certify their presidential electors, but both sides were focused on Dec. 18, when the Electoral College will cast its presidential votes, and on an early January deadline for Congress to count them. Florida's 25 votes would put either man over 270, the total needed to become America's 43rd president.
Bush was in Texas and Gore in Washington as the justices considered the vice president's appeal to restart the manual recounts that had been ordered last Friday by the Florida Supreme Court. In a split decision, the nation's high court had stopped the counting Saturday pending arguments and a ruling this week.
Both presidents-in-waiting tinkered with contingency plans, not knowing whether best- or worst-case scenarios would be needed.
Affirming the state Supreme Court would jeopardize Bush's razor-thin lead in Florida. Without recounts, Gore's presidential campaign would end, advisers said.
If Bush won in the Supreme Court, aides said, the Texas governor would keep appointments on a slow track, proceeding first with a series of actions to show the country he could heal divisions created by the marathon election.
He would be likely to deliver a high-minded unifying speech, then meet with congressional leaders, including Democrats, and perhaps President Clinton before making public his transition plans, advisers said.
Nerves were frayed on both sides.
Gore's advisers heard rumors at midmorning that a ruling was imminent. The gossip was reported as fact to the vice president before aides realized it was wrong. A senior Bush adviser said Tuesday was the longest day of his life; it was not quite noon at the time.