Florida Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls denied Al Gore's protest of Florida election results Monday, citing "no credible statistical evidence" that the vice president would win the Florida election if the ballots in Miami-Dade County were recounted by hand.
The ruling was a clear legal setback to the Gore campaign, which needs a recount of those ballots if it has any hopes of overturning Florida's certified election results showing George W. Bush winning the state by 533 votes. Gore's legal team was expected to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
The Florida Supreme Court will also reinherit the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, after the federal court vacated the extended deadline set by the Florida Supreme Court to accommodate manual recounts Monday morning. In a preliminary ruling that represented at least a temporary victory for Bush, the nation's highest court remanded the case back to the Florida Supreme Court for further instruction on how that court made its Nov. 21 decision. The ruling was delivered "per curiam" -- i.e., by the entire court.
Specifically, the Supreme Court wanted to know if the Florida court had reached its decision based on a reading of the Florida Constitution or on a reading of Florida legislation. If the Florida court based its decision on the principle that the state Constitution trumps the Legislature, rather than on an interpretation of the intent of the Legislature, that decision would be more likely to be reversed by the high court. This is because the U.S. Constitution provides that state legislatures, not the courts, have the final say in how their state's electors are chosen.
In his closing argument before Sauls on Sunday, lead Gore lawyer David Boies declared that the number of questionable ballots "is far more than enough to make a difference in this race ... Those ballots are sufficient to change the results of the election and sufficient to put that result in doubt."
Barry Richard, attorney for Bush, was not impressed by the Democratic case. "I kept waiting for a witness to come in here and say that there was a problem somewhere in this state and that that problem was of sufficient magnitude to overturn the count, and there was none," he said.
But one Republican witness may have done a better job proving the Democratic case than Gore's own witnesses did. Under cross-examination by Democratic lawyer Steven Zack, voting equipment salesman John Ahmann said that manual recounts were necessary "in very close elections."
Ahmann, who helped design election equipment for IBM, made that statement in contradiction to the Republicans' contention that manual recounts are inherently subjective and unreliable. Earlier, in direct testimony, Ahmann had sought to discredit the Gore camp's claim that chad buildup on ballot-punching machines could result in ballots not getting fully punched through. "I seriously doubt that a voter would be unable to push the chad through using such a device," he told the court.
Sauls had hoped to finish hearing testimony on Saturday, but the case crawled along at such a somnambulistic pace that it continued throughout Sunday. The slow progress was a bit of a setback for Gore, who needs a speedy decision in his favor from Sauls.
While the court case dragged into the evening, the vice president appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes," promising that he'd graciously concede. "If at the end of the day, when all the processes have taken place, if George W. Bush is sworn in as president," Gore said, "he will be my president, he will be America's president."
Earlier in the day, vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney pressed the Bush team's argument that "Sore Loserman" should concede. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert, Cheney said Gore has carried his legal battle too far and should concede defeat so a new administration can begin its work.
"All of us understand how difficult this is for him," Cheney said, but "I do think it's time for him to concede ... So far he's chosen not to do that, to pursue other avenues, and clearly that's his prerogative. But clearly, long term, history would regard him in a better light if he were to bring this to a close in the near future."
Cheney also discounted a controversial Page 1 Miami Herald analysis of the Florida vote that concluded Gore would have won if the Florida election hadn't been such a mess. Without the chad -- those dimpled, pregnant and hung symbols of voter intent -- or the butterfly ballot, Gore would have won the Florida election by 23,000 votes, the analysis states. "I have not seen the article," Cheney said, but "if we're going to go down that road, then why don't we say that NBC and the other networks made an early call on Election Night and decided that Al Gore had carried Florida and announced it before the polls closed and thousands of Republicans in the panhandle who would have otherwise cast their votes for George W. Bush and myself stayed home?"
Republicans may yet seek answers to those questions in court. Whichever side loses in Sauls' courtroom is expected to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.