Arguments in all three major remaining cases concluded Thursday and nine Florida judges now hold the fate of the presidential election in their hands.
Florida Circuit Judge Terry Lewis is expected to rule on the Martin County case by noon Friday EST. There was no word when Judge Nikki Clark or the Florida Supreme Court would hand down their rulings.
In a tense Florida Supreme Court hearing Thursday morning, attorneys for Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush argued about whether the vice president's election challenge had reached the end of the road.
None of the lawyers had much time to do anything but play defense. Moments after he stood up, Gore attorney David Boies was fielding a series of questions from Chief Justice Charles Wells. Boies had to explain why the case should move forward, why the disputed ballots should be recounted and whether there was enough time left to do so.
Several justices also asked Boies whether it would be fair to limit the manual recount to just the 14,000 Palm Beach and Miami-Dade County ballots that the Gore team has singled out. "Every case that we've cited," Boies said, "has been a case where only the contested ballots were counted."
More than once, the chief justice mentioned the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that vacated an earlier Florida Supreme Court decision. At one point, Wells declared that the court should become involved "only if there was substantial noncompliance with election laws."
Barry Richards, top legal gun for Bush, asserted that Gore's team had failed to prove that laws were violated, discretion was abused or even that ballots remain uncounted. "There was no evidence of any voter whose vote was not properly recorded," Richards said, referring to the trial held last weekend before Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls.
Justice Barbara Pariente didn't seem to like that answer. "Are you really saying that the 9,000 votes in Dade County ... should not be looked at in a contest action?" she asked. "Not at this point," Richards replied.
This could be the court of last resort for Gore, who is running out of chances to win Florida and the presidency. Even if Gore wins this legal challenge, he has lost precious time to conduct his desired recount and find the 537 votes he needs to erase Bush's lead.
Florida must choose its Electoral College delegates by Dec. 12. The court, understanding the need for speed, limited each side to about 30 minutes of argument, and has already had the 14,000 disputed ballots shipped from Sauls' courthouse to its own.
But all the court's gestures could be in vain. The Florida Legislature will meet in a special session Friday to prepare to pick the state's 25 electors itself in case court cases remain unresolved by the Dec. 12 Electoral College deadline. Democrats have responded that the predominantly Republican lawmakers are trying to guarantee Bush a win no matter what the final vote total is.
Two cases outside of Gore's election challenge may have the most effect on the vote total in Florida. Throughout Thursday morning, the trial continued in the Martin County absentee ballot case. In that lawsuit, local Democrats have been arguing that because Republican election officials allowed GOP volunteers to take home incomplete absentee ballot applications and correct them, every absentee ballot cast in that county was compromised. Their preferred solution is to throw out all of the approximately 10,000 absentee votes, which would give Gore a net gain of more than 2,000 votes.
Final arguments will be heard Thursday at 1 p.m. EST in the Seminole County case, a precursor to the Martin County suit. Hanging in the balance are that county's 15,000 absentee votes. Democrats allege that county election supervisor Sandra Goard illegally allowed Republicans to set up shop in her office and fix thousands of absentee ballot requests from Republicans.
In one of Wednesday's most charged moments, Democratic attorneys read aloud testimony from Goard, who has held the supervisor post in Seminole County for 23 years. She admitted to permitting two Republican Party representatives, including the party's regional director, Michael Leach, to add missing voter identification numbers to about 2,000 absentee ballot applications filed by Republican voters. Goard also acknowledged that Florida law did not permit her to take such an action and that she had not provided Democrats with the same opportunity.
In opening arguments in the case, the Democrats' attorney, Gerald Richman, argued, "I don't think there's any question the law was violated in this case," referring to the actions of Goard and Republican officials.
Republican attorney Daryl Bristow, meanwhile, countered: "This case is being brought for one reason, to change the outcome of the election, to change the will of the people in Seminole County."
Gore is not a party to either suit, and his attorneys and Democratic supporters have been adamant that the vice president's battle will end when the Florida Supreme Court rules on his election challenge appeal. Yet the vice president spoke in great detail about the absentee ballot cases during a Tuesday afternoon press conference, and said that "more than enough votes were potentially taken away from the Democrats" in Seminole and Martin counties to make him the winner in Florida.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Jesse Jackson asserted that there were plenty of uncounted votes in Florida that could have turned the election in Gore's favor. On Wednesday afternoon, hundreds gathered at a pro-Gore rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Tallahassee to hear speeches by Jackson, National Organization of Women first lady Patricia Ireland and AFL-CIO bigwig John Sweeney.
Though Jackson's allegations of the disfranchisement of black voters in the state do have a ring of truth, his partisan rhetoric went a long way toward undermining the cause he was fighting for. In a short speech, he compared the Florida vote count to a hypothetical election involving a certain deposed Yugoslav leader.
"If we were in Yugoslavia and Milosevic was losing a race," Jackson told the demonstrators, "there's one contested state, and his brother, the governor, was over that state, and the machinery of state broke down and he became the winner by virtue of the breakdown of that machinery, we would say that race does not pass the smell test of transparency. And that's what has happened in Florida. Mr. Bush and Mrs. Harris are very much involved in the chaos in this state and they cannot shift it, even to Seminole. It's all about Tallahassee."
Commenting on the Seminole County case, Jackson didn't mince words: "The reality is, looking at Seminole is looking through a keyhole. Look through the door, you'll see a pattern of racial targeting, you'll see a pattern of intentionality, schemes planned; you're going to see corruption," he said.