Federal Courts Refuse to Get Involved in Legal Wrangling

Article excerpt

Both presidential candidates want judges to tip the teetering Florida election their way, but it has become clear that getting a federal court to override state election law will be far tougher than hand-counting a million ballots by today's deadline.

Three federal court lawsuits have failed. Yesterday, a Bush campaign lawsuit in Miami was rejected, and Democrats suffered setbacks in West Palm Beach and Tallahassee last week.

State law gives Leon County Circuit Court in Tallahassee judicial authority over elections covering more than one county, but no cases were filed there until yesterday, when Volusia County and Palm Beach County asked Judge Terry Lewis to block state certification until recounts are done. Lawyers for the Gore and Bush campaigns joined the hearing that the judge last night delayed until this morning.

Barring a court order by 5 p.m. today, the statewide vote must be certified final without regard to unfinished recounts and subject only to the addition on Friday of ballots mailed from abroad, according to state Canvassing Board members who have the last word.

"There is no discretion," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, a Democratic member of the Canvassing Board, said at a news conference. "All missing counties shall be ignored and the result shown by returns on file shall be certified. It doesn't say `may be awarded,' or `may be certified.' It says `shall.' "

Mr. Crawford, who pronounced himself a mainstream Democrat despite wandering from a straight ticket this year to vote for Mr. Bush, dismissed suggestions that Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, has the option to wait.

"It is the canvassing commission and not the secretary of state that actually certifies the votes," said Mr. Crawford, who was joined by panel lawyer Bill Bryant.

Though the campaigns of Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush repeatedly swear adherence to "the will of the people," both also support asking courts to govern recounts, to alter official reporting schedules, and even to order new elections that might be restricted to those who voted Nov. 7.

Among those who criticized both sides for going to court were former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon J. Panetta and former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich.

"I do worry that both candidates and both campaigns are beginning to resort to the courts," Mr. Reich said yesterday in an interview with Bryant Gumbel on CBS' "The Early Show."

"Once you get into the legal thicket . . . there is simply no end to it. This is not the path for resolution. This is the path for more disorganization and uncertainty," Mr. Reich said.

Mr. Bush wants to shore up his lead of fewer than 400 votes out of 6 million cast in Florida, while Mr. Gore wants to test that photo-finish margin by letting officials determine "voter intent" from disqualified ballots.

Both camps say civil rights are at stake in ways that justify trumping the letter or interpretation of state laws because the stakes are so high. No matter how slim the margin, whoever wins Florida becomes president on Jan. 20.

While advocates for both sides slugged it out yesterday in state courts at West Palm Beach, Daytona Beach and Tallahassee, two titans of constitutional law - Reagan administration legal adviser Theodore B. …