Key Decisions Go before Judges ; Lawyers for Bush Are in Federal Court Today to Stop Hand Recounts Taking Place in Florida Counties

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The presidential election is swinging full speed into litigation mode, raising for the first time in American history the possibility that judges will play a key role in determining who is the next president of the United States.

That is the ultimate implication as lawyers for George W. Bush today try to convince a federal judge here to order county election officials in Florida to stop a special hand recount of ballots cast in last week's presidential election.

US District Judge Daniel Middlebrooks, a Clinton appointee, must decide whether to allow the manual recount to continue as requested by lawyers for Al Gore, or whether the post-election hand recounts in four counties amount to an unconstitutional devaluing of Republican and other votes, as claimed by lawyers for Governor Bush.

Also on the horizon is the legal issue of whether a state judge should order a revote in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County after some 19,000 ballots were invalidated due to apparent voter confusion. And the Rev. Jesse Jackson has suggested a need for possible federal civil rights suits in the wake of what he says were significant irregularities that prevented some Floridians from voting.

Both the Bush and Gore campaigns are marshaling small armies of highly talented lawyers in anticipation of these and other legal battles. The high-stakes hearing in Miami today marks the first shot in what may explode in the weeks ahead into all-out legal warfare.

"What is scary about this is that the atmosphere is so highly charged that reasonable judgments can sometimes get clouded," says Bruce Rogow, a lawyer representing Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore. "It is important that everyone take a step back."

With a roughly 300-vote difference between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore in the critical Florida election, any legal action that changes the status quo will likely help one candidate while hurting the other.

For example, Democratic officials are hopeful that a manual recount of ballots in four counties that are Democratic strongholds will identify large numbers of Gore votes that were misread or otherwise rejected by machines that automatically count the ballots.

Such manual recounts are legal under Florida law, but Bush supporters insist that only recounts by machine should be permitted. "Machines are neither Republicans nor Democrats and therefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased," says James Baker, the former secretary of State and Bush campaign troubleshooter in Florida.

Warren Christopher, the former secretary of State and Gore's troubleshooter in Florida, counters that hand recounts are under way where voting anomalies appeared. "This is a procedure called for by Florida law," he says. "They are checking the machine count to make sure it was accurate."

Bush maintained his slim lead during the machine recount last week. And Bush supporters believe he will receive a majority of absentee ballots expected to arrive from overseas by Friday.

They want any further recount efforts halted pending the return of the overseas absentee ballots and certification of the results. …