Florida's highest court kept the presidential race on the legal fast track Tuesday, agreeing to speedily hear Al Gore's appeal of a ruling awarding George W. Bush the state's 25 electoral votes.
The arguments were scheduled for Thursday morning, the latest legal twist among many in the month since the presidential election left Bush leading by a slim margin among 6 million votes cast in the pivotal state.Gore wants to reverse a devastating defeat Monday, when Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls rejected every argument Gore presented for why a state-certified 537-vote victory for Bush should be nullified.
The ruling left Gore lawyer W. Dexter Douglass, among others, reaching for dramatic comeback examples to capture the historic significance of the contest. Douglass chose the World War II Battle of the Bulge.
``We won, and then we were told to surrender,' Douglass recalled. ``But if we're in that position, we're there to win. We may be surrounded by the enemy, but we still have a court that is willing and unafraid to decide a case on the law.'
Encouraging to Democrats was their return to a state appeals court that provided their greatest legal victory to date, a decision last month extending by a week the date by which counties could conduct hand counts.
After the extension failed to put Gore ahead, he challenged the certified Florida results in court, forcing a marathon weekend trial capped by Sauls' dramatic announcement from the bench Monday.
Sauls rejected Gore's request for a manual recount in two counties and to overturn Bush's victory in the state that stands to pick the next president when it formally awards its electoral votes.
Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said the justices had allotted an hour Thursday for oral arguments, 30 minutes apiece. On a technical point of what issues would be argued, he said lawyers would discuss whether the court should decide the case as well as the issues.
The court could still reject the case, uphold Sauls' ruling or reverse all or part of it, returning it to the lower court with further instructions.
Joseph Lieberman, Gore's vice presidential candidate, said the Florida Supreme Court would be ``the final arbiter' of the election dispute.
Gore said he didn't feel ``anything other than optimistic.'
On other legal fronts:
Though Gore has not joined a challenge to several thousand absentee ballots in Seminole County, the vice president said it appeared that enough potential Democratic votes to give him victory were thrown in ``the trash can by the supervisor of elections there.'
He said the Democratic votes were lost even though Republicans were unfairly allowed to correct absentee-ballot applications. A trial was set in the case for today after a lawsuit accused Republicans of tampering with ballot application forms by adding voter identification numbers. About 90 Seminole County residents rode GOP-chartered buses to protest outside Leon County Circuit Court. Inside, Judge Nikki Clark said the trial would go forward because the allegations were sufficient to avoid Republican efforts to dismiss the lawsuit.
A judge in Pensacola listened as Republican lawyers urged that hundreds of rejected overseas ballots, mostly from military personnel, be counted. U.S. District Judge Lacey Collier promised a prompt ruling.
At oral arguments in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, a judge asked Democratic lawyer Teresa Wynn Roseborough why it was constitutional to do manual recounts in only Florida's three largest predominantly Democratic counties. Roseborough said every vote should be counted. The question came during arguments in a pair of related cases from Bush supporters who want the results of any hand recounts thrown out.
Gore's appeal to the Florida Supreme Court was one of two election-related cases before the high court. The other, returned Monday from the U.S. Supreme Court, sought clarification of the reasoning behind the Florida court's extension of the manual recounting deadline. Written arguments were submitted by both sides Tuesday.
Bush lawyers urged the court to change its mind and agree with a state judge's ruling that concluded no recounts were allowed after a Nov. 14 deadline set in state law.
``The conclusion that this court elevated the supremacy of the Florida Constitution over the legislature's plain statutory directive is inescapable,' the lawyers wrote.
Gore's legal team urged the state Supreme Court to reinstate its prior ruling allowing the recounts, saying it was correct and the U.S. justices only want a clarification about legal grounds upon which it was based.
The GOP-led Florida legislature took the rare step of intervening in the state Supreme Court case, telling justices the U.S. Constitution gave lawmakers - not the courts - final say in picking Florida's 25 electors.
It urged the court to vacate its earlier decision allowing belated hand recounts, uphold the original Nov. 14 deadline for final vote tallies and avoid forcing lawmakers to ``appoint those electors directly' to avoid missing the Dec. 12 deadline for the Electoral College.
``It would be a travesty, after all Florida has been through these past few weeks, for the end result to be that all 6 million voters in Florida might be disenfranchised in the Electoral College,' the Legislature's filing said.
House Speaker Tom Feeney has pressed for a special session to appoint Bush electors, while Senate President John McKay has moved more cautiously, saying that might not be necessary.
Sauls concluded Gore had not proven the results of the election would change even if his legal arguments won out and the court conducted hand recounts of 14,000 disputed ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
The vice president also sought to change the official vote certification in Nassau County, where 51 votes were involved.
The Bush team argued there was no reason for the recount, and said the Texas governor had been certified properly on the basis of tallies submitted by the canvassing boards in all 67 Florida counties.