Supreme Court Sends Case Back Justices Want Clarity from Florida Jurists

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WASHINGTON -- In a ruling later overshadowed by action in a Tallahassee courtroom, the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday bounced the presidential election case before it back to the Sunshine State.

The justices ruled that the Florida Supreme Court needed to eliminate "obscurities and ambiguities" in its controversial decision extending the deadline for certifying the winner of the presidential race.

That was their way of saying that the Florida Supreme Court needs to rewrite its decision.

In an unsigned ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court also set aside the Florida court's decision, raising the possibility that George W. Bush's certified margin of victory over Al Gore could increase by about 400 votes, to 930.

But the justices rendered no decision on the specific claims by attorneys for Bush, who argued that the Florida court overstepped its bounds by extending the deadline.

Legal experts said the language of the high court's order offered a legal road map from which the Florida Supreme Court could reach its original conclusion without raising federal concerns -- eliminating the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court to be involved.

Such a result doesn't translate into a simple Bush victory, said Susan Low Bloch, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University.

"It's really a punt," she said.

Even James Baker, a spokesman for Bush's legal team, hesitated to stake a precise claim on how the U.S. Supreme Court's decision affected the tally for the Texas governor.

"I can't answer that question for you," Baker said at a Tallahassee news conference. "If there is a new total, it moves up and not down."

Gore adviser Greg Simon played down the court's action as "just a timeout. . . . This doesn't move the ball either way."

Bloch predicted that the Florida court would now revise and reissue its decision and the U.S. Supreme Court will stay out of the matter.

A second legal expert agreed.

"The Supreme Court was hanging over this like an 800-pound gorilla," said Stephen Wermiel, a legal scholar at American University in Washington. "They now removed themselves."

The potential impact of the ruling receded to near insignificance when state Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls issued a sweeping, point-by-point ruling against Gore's election contest in a Tallahassee court. Almost immediately, Gore's attorneys appealed that ruling.

The legal battle before the nation's highest court resulted from a provision of Florida law requiring the secretary of state to certify county vote results seven days after the election. …