Washington Only weeks after legal experts questioned whether the Supreme Court's Florida recount ruling might be political, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said he hoped the U.S. court system "will seldom, if ever" become embroiled in another presidential election.
Rehnquist's annual report to Congress on the U.S. judiciary did not mention the criticism leveled against the high court. Nor did the chief justice, who was in the majority, attempt to defend the 5-4 ruling that rejected a recount of Florida presidential election votes and handed the election to George W. Bush.
Rather, he expressed hope that the courts would never again have to decide a presidential election.
Rehnquist got to the point immediately, addressing the election in the opening paragraph of his 15th year-end report to Congress since becoming chief justice.
"Despite the seesaw aftermath of the presidential election, we are once again witnessing an orderly transition of power from one presidential administration to another," he said.
"This presidential election, however, tested our constitutional system in ways it has never been tested before. The Florida state courts, the lower federal courts and the Supreme Court of the United States became involved in a way that one hopes will seldom, if ever, be necessary in the future."
Some observers have said the court may have hurt its credibility by splitting along ideological lines in such an important case. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said, "The majority has dealt the court a serious blow by taking actions many Americans will consider to be political rather than judicial."
The ruling followed the court's familiar lineup conservatives Rehnquist, Thomas and Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy on one side, and liberals John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer on the other.
This was not the first time Rehnquist defended the court against allegations that the recount ruling was political. He first did so after Justice Clarence Thomas denied the day after the decision that political views counted in this or any other decision.
Thomas told high school students the court was a nonpartisan, deliberative body that focuses only on the law.
"Don't try to apply the rules of the political world to this institution," Thomas said. "I have yet to hear any discussion in nine years of partisan politics among members of the court."
In the appearance, televised on C-SPAN 2, Thomas said that critics of the court might think justices appointed by certain presidents "maybe hang out together. That doesn't happen. The members of the court don't pair off. There aren't these cliques."
Rehnquist also dealt with more traditional matters in his report. The chief justice:
l Said federal judges need more money, even though "some may be skeptical of the need to raise the salaries of judges who already earn more than $140,000 per year." He said judicial paychecks "have been far outpaced by salaries of lawyers in the private sector." The chief justice made $181,400 in 2000 and the associate justices $173,600.
l Opposed a bill introduced in the Senate that would have empowered a federal judicial panel to decide what seminars judges could attend using government funds. The authorized seminars would have been those "conducted in a manner so as to maintain the public's confidence" in judges. Rehnquist said the proposal "has most of the elements commonly associated with government censorship."
l Noted that the number of case filings before the Supreme Court increased from 7,109 in the 1998 term to 7,377 in the 1999 term, an increase of 3.8 percent. During the 1999 term 83 cases were argued and 79 were disposed of in 74 signed opinions. This compared to 90 cases argued and 84 disposed of in 75 signed opinions the previous term.