Florida Finale

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Dec. 13 2000 7:12 AM

Florida Finale

Everybody leads with last night's 10 p.m. 5-4 Supreme Court decision stopping the manual recounts in Florida and holding that they could not be brought up to constitutional snuff before midnight last night, when state electors would have become vulnerable to congressional challenges. After the decision was issued, George W. Bush adviser James Baker issued a statement of gratification but not a declaration of victory, and the Gore camp announced that Al Gore would make a statement today. The headlines reflect varying takes on the resultant status of the election. (Other relevant developments the papers report: the Florida Supreme Court's dismissal of those lawsuits challenging Bush absentee ballots and the Florida House's approval of a Bush elector slate.) The Washington Postflatly credits the recount ruling with "GIVING BUSH THE PRESIDENCY." Both the Los Angeles Times and USA Today headers state that Bush won in court, with the former adding that Gore is being pressured to concede and the latter going a step further: "GORE AIDES EXPECT CONCESSION." The New York Times' headline is the only one that puts the Supreme Court's single-vote margin in the big print, and the Times crafts a top-tier headline that technically applies only to what happened in court but connotes what has also likely happened in the election: "BUSH PREVAILS."

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The court's vote, with five Republican appointees forming the decisive majority, was exactly the same as last Saturday's vote to temporarily halt the recounts, although seven justices went on record yesterday as saying they found that the previous conduct of the Florida recount violated constitutional standards of due process and equal protection. But two of them--Justices David Souter and Stephen Breyer--thought it relevant that this might be fixable before the Electoral College meets on Dec. 18. The LAT lead gives the harshest and most political reading of the decision, saying pretty high up that it "suggests the court's majority was determined to block Gore from winning the bitterly fought Florida race by hand counting disputed ballots." The paper's lead also says the court was "apparently determined" to issue its ruling before midnight because it believed if it did so, federal law would then protect Bush's Florida electors.

All the papers take note of this passage from John Paul Stevens' blistering dissent: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law." Also widely quoted is Breyer's dissent, which calls the ruling "a self-inflicted wound--a wound that may harm not just the court but the nation." Both the WP lead and the NYT off-lead note that dissenter Justice Ruth Ginsburg signed her opinion, "I dissent," leaving out the customary "respectfully." The NYT lead quotes Jesse Jackson, who called the ruling "democratically illegitimate" and compared it to the court's 1857 Dred Scott decision. The NYT lead editorial says the decision "comes at considerable cost to the public trust and the tradition of fair elections."

Of all the leads, the LAT is the most dismissive of the court's equal protection/due process concerns, describing this as "a claim most lawyers saw as unusually weak" because different voting methods inherently bring with them different standards. However, it should be added that two days ago, when the paper's lead mentioned this, it quoted exactly one lawyer. The Wall Street Journal main story on the decision observes that it has one legal consequence extending well beyond this election: It threw out the Florida standard of evaluating ballots by trying to determine voter intent, which affects the election laws in many states.

The NYT runs a story inside reporting that once again President Clinton is being asked to grant clemency to Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of spying on the United States for Israel. The story reminds what a political hot potato Pollard has been--an Israeli demand for his release once became a factor in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and almost prompted the resignation of a CIA director, and he became an issue faced by Hillary Clinton in her New York Senate race, and continues to be. His release now might become a factor in the Israeli elections. But one thing that's not in the story that should be is: What damage did Pollard do to U.S. security. Readers and leaders might be able to decide what to think about Pollard if the papers would put some of their investigative energy into this difficult question.

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