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Supreme Court Hands Presidency to Bush

The most extraordinary struggle over a presidential election in this century ends with a whimper and a divided Supreme Court.
 
 
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We have come to the end of the road. Vice President Al Gore has suspended the activities of his recount committee, has sent home the workers who were leading the battle and plans to address the nation at 9 p.m. EST Wednesday in what the Associated Press reports will be a concession speech. His running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, is expected to speak briefly before Gore.

Gov. George W. Bush also plans to make a speech sometime Wednesday.

These moves come in the wake of a bitterly divided decision by the U.S. Supreme Court late Tuesday evening, ruling that the manual recount of votes in Florida was unconstitutional. The decision is certain to be among the most controversial ever made by the nation's highest judicial body.

Technically, the court remanded the case to the Florida Supreme Court, instructing it to come up with a constitutionally defensible argument for its order. But it also made clear that, to a majority of the court, such a defense simply did not exist, and that time had run out.

"Seven Justices of the Court agree that there are constitutional problems with the recount order by the Florida Supreme Court that demand a remedy," the majority opinion ruled.

In a blistering dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens blasted the majority opinion as undercutting the highest court's moral authority. "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."

Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer also wrote dissenting opinions. The five members of the majority were Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas.

While dissenting from the finding for Bush, Breyer and Souter joined the majority in finding that the lack of uniform standards for counting ballots during the recount was unconstitutional.

The court issued its ruling at 10 p.m. EST, two hours before the Dec. 12 deadline for protecting the state's electors from congressional challenge. Although many legal commentators insisted the so-called deadline really wasn't one, the court majority apparently disagreed. The unsigned opinion said Florida couldn't come up with a way to recount the votes that met "minimal constitutional standards" as well as the Dec. 12 deadline.

While Souter and Breyer agreed that the lack of uniform standards for the recount violated the due-process and equal-protection provisions of the Constitution, they said the recount should have been restarted and finished in time for the Dec. 18 meeting of Electoral College members.

In separate opinions, the court's most conservative members -- Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas -- insisted the Florida Supreme Court had violated state law in ordering the recount.

Gore and his team studied the complex ruling, which appeared to leave the faintest possibility that his campaign might be able to fight on by asking the Florida Supreme Court to fashion an acceptable and timely way of recounting votes in Florida. Sources inside the Gore camp told CNN that some of the vice president's inner circle were urging him to fight. Gore had promised to concede graciously if the Supreme Court ruled against him, but the ambiguity in the ruling left it possible that he might pursue the final legal recourse left him. His decision Wednesday morning to suspend his recount operation made it appear that he was prepared to end his long legal struggle.

Tuesday evening, leading Democrats broke out in public conflict over whether Gore should concede the race. In response to a question from MSNBC's Chris Matthews about whether Gore should concede or try to fight on by "raiding" GOP electors, the general chairman of the Democratic Party, Ed Rendell, said, "He should act now and concede." Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., also called on Gore to concede. Spokesmen for Rendell quickly insisted that Rendell was speaking only for himself and not in his official capacity. Democratic National Committee chairman Joe Andrew blasted Rendell's statement as unauthorized and outrageous. Later, on ABC, Rendell claimed he had been quoted out of context.

Gore attorney Laurence Tribe was also quoted saying that "it's over," on NBC. But while CNN reported Tribe had urged Gore to concede, he later insisted he hadn't, squabbling with interviewers over exactly what he'd said.

The initial reactions among pundits -- after they had waded through the 60-plus page opinion -- were swift. "It's over," said George Stephanopoulos on ABC. NBC's Tim Russert also struck a note of finality, declaiming that the country needed to respect the Supreme Court's decision and rally around the new president. Chris Matthews described members of the Gore camp who wanted to fight on as "mad dogs." The National Journal's Stuart Taylor, when asked if Gore might fight on, said that since Gore had already been the first presidential candidate to contest an election, he might also be the first to defy a Supreme Court order. He immediately corrected himself to say that it was not actually an order, but that if Gore continued to fight he would be "thumbing his nose" at the court.

Later, however, other analysts discerned that the ruling left Gore with the tiniest of legal hopes.

Gore campaign chairman William Daley said the vice president, who was with his family, wouldn't comment on the decision until Wednesday. "Al Gore and Joe Lieberman are now reviewing the decision issued tonight by the U.S. Supreme Court," Daley said in a written statement, adding that the ruling's complexity required that they hold off on an official response until Wednesday.

That response now is likely to be a concession, ending the most extraordinary struggle over a presidential election in this century.