The Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear Al Gore's appeal of a ruling that upheld George W. Bush's statewide victory in the contested presidential race.
Court spokesman Craig Waters said the justices wanted written papers submitted by noon today, and would hear arguments Thursday morning in the case that could ultimately settle the race for the White House.
The unusually condensed schedule reflected the national urgency of the case.
Gore is appealing a ruling by Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls that rejected Gore's request for a manual recount in two counties and to overturn Bush's certified victory in the state that stands to pick the next president.
Waters said the justices had allotted an hour for oral arguments, 30 minutes for each side. On a technical point of what issues would be argued, he said the lawyers would be "dealing with whether the court should hear the case and the issues of the case as well."
Joseph Lieberman, Gore's vice presidential candidate, stood yesterday in Washington with supportive Democratic lawmakers as he said the Florida Supreme Court would be "the final arbiter" of the election dispute.
Gore's appeal was one of two election-related cases at Florida's highest court. The other, returned on Monday from the U.S. Supreme Court, requested clarification of the reasoning behind a state Supreme Court ruling last month that approved partial manual recounts beyond a deadline fixed in state law for the end of vote counting in the presidential election.
The Bush and Gore legal teams already were operating under a 3 p.m. yesterday deadline for submitting written arguments in that case. No timetable for oral arguments has yet been set in that case.
Waters told reporters he had no information on whether the two cases would be combined.
The developments came the day after Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls rejected Gore's request to reverse Bush's certified 537-vote victory and also refused his request to order a partial manual recount.
Gore lawyer Ron Klain said yesterday the proceeding before the Florida Supreme Court is "the most important step in this process" - and probably the last one.
Another Gore attorney, W. Dexter Douglass, said the vice president was prepared to appeal Sauls' decision on virtually every point, including his ruling that recounts cannot be conducted in selected counties. To win an appeal, Gore needed to show a reasonable probability that recounts would tip the election to him and that county boards abused their discretion.
"It was a totally appealable order on every point," Douglass said.
The Gore team would be ready to file its legal arguments within hours of the Florida Supreme Court setting a schedule for the submission of arguments in the case, he added.
Congress' two Democratic leaders, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, released a statement saying they believe the appeal was in keeping with Florida law and American democracy.
In the Florida Legislature, Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney, both Republicans, said in a joint statement that they had filed a motion to participate in the appeal before the Supreme Court.
They said they wanted to tell the justices that the Legislature's authority to pick electors stems from the U.S. Constitution and cannot be overridden by the state Supreme Court.
Handing Bush a key legal victory, Sauls said he concluded Gore had not shown there was a ''reasonable probability'' that the results of the election would have been changed.
Reading aloud to a packed courtroom and nationwide television audience, Sauls came down on Bush's side of the case on point after point. He refused to sweep aside Bush's 537-vote certified victory and begin courthouse counts of what Gore said were missed votes that had been rejected by machines in heavily Democratic counties.
"The evidence does not establish any illegality, dishonesty, gross negligence, improper influence, coercion or fraud in the balloting and counting processes" in the Florida counties where Gore sought hand recounts, Sauls said.
Furthermore, county canvassing boards in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Nassau counties all had acted within their discretion in tabulating votes, Sauls said, and there was ''no authority under Florida law'' for certifying an incomplete manual recount or for submitting returns after a deadline fixed by the state Supreme Court. That was a vindication of the actions of Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a GOP partisan who certified Bush the winner.
And Sauls said that while the record shows "voter error and/or less than total accuracy in regard" to the results in Palm Beach and Miami counties, these problems "cannot support or affect any recounting."
Gore asked for a ruling overturning Bush's slim lead and a manual recount of about 14,000 ballots in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. The vice president also sought to change the official vote certification in Nassau County, although only 51 votes were involved there.
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.