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Western Press Review: Courts Seen As Dimming Gore's Presidential Hopes

Prague, 5 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. press commentary is devoted largely to assessing two key court decisions yesterday -- one in Washington, D.C., the other in Florida's capital Tallahassee -- that appear to reduce Democrat Al Gore's chances of wining contested votes in Florida. The votes are needed by him or Republican George W. Bush to gain the state's 25 electoral college votes and thereby win the U.S. presidency. Most analysts see Gore's chances of winning as now considerably reduced and the U.S.' protracted post-electoral problems close to ending.


Two national dailies that supported Al Gore's candidacy, the New York Times and the Washington Post, acknowledge the court rulings were severe blows for Gore. In an editorial, the New York Times says: "The courts were not kind to Vice President Al Gore yesterday, especially that of Judge N. Sanders Sauls of Florida, who peremptorily rejected Mr. Gore's reasonable request to review ballots that have yet to be counted. But the rulings of Judge Sauls and the United States Supreme Court pushed the election a step or two closer to resolution." The paper adds: "[The] outcome of the presidential election [now rests] primarily with the Florida Supreme Court, the institution best suited by law and temperament to resolve the ballot battle. Both Mr. Gore and Gov. Bush should make clear to the nation that they will be guided by the decisions of the state Supreme Court."

The editorial goes on: "With the presidency resting on such a close margin of votes in Florida [537], every effort must be made to conduct a fair and accurate count of the ballots. Mr. Gore's lead attorney, David Boies, indicated that his appeal to Florida's Supreme Court will hinge on Judge Sauls' failure to consider the physical evidence -- the actual ballots -- that were available in Tallahassee."

The editorial finds that the U.S. Supreme Court "did not speak yesterday with the same clarity as Judge Sauls. Its decision to ask the Florida Supreme Court to clarify its earlier ruling extending the deadline for hand counts in several counties essentially sidestepped the legal and constitutional issues raised by Gov. Bush's petition. Though the unsigned opinion was unanimous, it seemed to reflect divisions on the court about whether the Florida court had overreached its authority." It says: "Nearly a month after the election, the fog is beginning to lift. Mr. Gore's options narrowed sharply yesterday, but there is still a need -- and a chance -- for a further hand count of ballots."


The Washington Post's editorial says that "Gore's requests for further counts and other adjustments of the totals in Florida's painfully close presidential election hit a wall yesterday -- a total turndown by Judge Sauls. [The] vice president is plainly entitled to make [a final legal effort]. He would likely argue that he has an obligation to do so on behalf of his supporters. He continues to think, as do many of them, that he won the state and thus the presidency."

"But," the paper goes on to argue, "[Gore] is running out of chances to prove it. The process through which he proposes to take the country is increasingly attenuated. He has the right to appeal, but also a responsibility to begin contemplating the manner in which he might abandon his quest. We have no doubt that he has already begun to do that as well."

As for the U.S. Supreme Court, the Washington Post finds that it "did not distinguish itself, nor particularly aid the country, with its decision yesterday. The court was divided about the validity of the state Supreme Court action that it had agreed perhaps unwisely to review." Its editorial concludes: "Those who look to [the U.S. Supreme Court] for leadership on difficult questions such as these can only be disappointed. The entire process since the election has been a test that the public at large has passed better than many of the leading participants, starting in our view with the candidates, both of whom have fought in such a way as to endanger the legitimacy of the victory that each continues to seek. Mr. Gore [now] has one more swing."


Columnists in both papers also assess the court judgments. In the Washington Post, David Broder says that "Gore's last-ditch legal struggles became much more politically difficult yesterday in the wake of two judicial rulings that most Democrats viewed as virtually exhausting his options for overcoming [Gov.] Bush. Despite a formal endorsement by the party's congressional leaders for Gore's latest filings in Florida courts, Democrats across the spectrum conceded that his prospects for victory appear dim. Some said he should begin weighing the best time to withdraw."

"Republicans," Broder adds, "said the flat-out rejection by Judge Sauls of Gore's effort to contest Bush's certification as the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes ought to be the cue for Gore to concede Bush's presidential victory. [And]," he continues, "interviews with a number of congressional Democrats found little optimism that the Florida Supreme Court would take the political risk of reversing Judge Sauls. Several said the seven members of that court -- six Democrats and an independent -- would be cautious about their actions after the Supreme Court in Washington yesterday unanimously sent back for clarification their earlier pro-Gore ruling that delayed certification of Bush's Florida victory and permitted more vote-counting."

Broder cites one liberal Democratic congressman, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, as saying: "[Gore] has one more appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, and he'll probably lose it, and then it's over."


In the Washington Post, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. still sees some hope for Gore in his appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. Dionne writes: "Those who hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would offer a miraculous way out of the recount controversy between Gore and Bush are disappointed. It was too much to expect, given the obvious divisions among the nine justices. [Now,"] he says, "everything depends on the Florida Supreme Court. It must respond to the high court and, perhaps more important, to the sweeping rejection of Gore's claims by [Florida] Judge Sauls. [The] Florida high court confronts one overriding issue: whether this election will be resolved through traditional means or extraordinary means."

His commentary continues: "It's now been established -- in the courts and by some fine journalism -- that punch card ballots are far less accurate than other voting systems in recording votes. Powerful stories in [the national and Florida] press have shown that thousands of African American voters, most of whom supported Gore, were disenfranchised by shoddy equipment -- and were far more likely to be stuck with the lousy machines than were affluent whites."

Dionne goes on: "The Florida Supreme Court will need guts to address these issues, and perhaps force them up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will have trouble ducking the next time around. The Florida court will have to decide whether all the obvious problems in Florida will be ignored and swept, for now, under a judicial rug."


One Democratic-leaning U.S. daily, the Boston Globe, is concerned about the rights of U.S. minority voters who, it says, "continue to be shunted aside by the various states' election processes." The editorial declares: "No matter who wins the presidency, some voters already [have] lost the election."

The editorial says: "This week, officials [of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] announced they would file suit to dig into this election and prevent problems in future elections. A more common reaction is a sympathetic but helpless shrug -- concern but surrender to the facts that mistakes are made. More chilling are political leaders who loudly complain that ballots have been counted when in fact to no record has been made of voters' intentions."

The Boston Globe concludes: "The lasting tragedy of this election will not be found in declaring that one man stole the presidency from another. The lasting tragedy will be found among [U.S.] families who will add 21st century stories to the long historic narrative of how, despite their best efforts, they were denied the chance to vote."


Two conservative U.S. dailies hail yesterday's legal decisions. In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal writes: "Al Gore has been searching high and low for a judge politically pliable enough to order up the votes to make him President. Yesterday, in courts both high and low, several judges told the Vice President that they aren't playing along." The paper goes on: "It's hard to lose a case as thoroughly as Mr. Gore lost in Judge Sauls' [courtroom]. He and lawyer David Boies lost on the facts and they lost on the law. And they lost on all of his election-contest claims."

The Wall Street Journal's editorial adds: "Judge Sauls said: 'The court [finds] and concludes the evidence does not establish any illegality, dishonesty, gross negligence, improper influence, coercion or fraud in the balloting and counting processes. In short," the paper concludes, "Mr. Gore's claims were frivolous."

As for what the editorial calls Gore's "other defeat yesterday," it writes: "[U.S.] Chief Justice William Rehnquist turns out to be a better politician than his reputation. He somehow marshaled all of his colleagues behind an opinion that gently but firmly rebuked the Florida Supreme Court."


The Washington Times agrees. It finds that, "combined with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, [the] decision by Judge Sauls has put on life support Al Gore's already shaky claim on the presidency. On issue after issue," the paper writes, "from the 10,750 'under-votes' in Miami-Dade County to the 3,300 dimpled ballots in Palm Beach County to Nassau County's relatively minuscule 51 disputed votes, Judge Sauls obliterated every single claim in Mr. Gore's lawsuit contesting the certification of [Bush's] Florida victory. Rarely has a court victory been so total."

The editorial also says: "While Judge Sauls decimated every single claim Mr. Gore advanced in his contest, the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court effectively put Mr. Gore's principal protector, the Florida Supreme Court, on notice that any attempt to overturn Judge Sauls' ruling will be minutely examined through the lens of federal law and the U.S. Constitution. On all sides and all fronts," it sums up, "Mr. Gore suffered major political and legal defeats yesterday. No amount of spin can change that fact."

(This concludes today's press review in one take. RFE/RL's Don Hill contributed to our report.)