Just when it seemed Vice President Al Gore was gaspinghis last in a marathon struggle for the White House, the Florida Supreme Courtgave him a shot of oxygen, ordering the manual recount of more than 40,000contested Florida ballots that he hopes will allow him to sprint into thelead.
In a split decision that stunned both sides and set off a flurry of appealsand angry rhetoric, the court ruled 4-3 to overturn a trial court decision andaward Gore 383 previously rejected ballots, reducing Texas Gov. George W. Bush's lead from 537 to 154 votes.
The statewide manual recount of "undervotes" - ballots kicked out bymachines without recording a vote for president - should begin immediately,the court said in a statement read on the courthouse steps just after 4 p.m.to cheers, gasps and scattered boos from onlookers.
"Only by examining the contested ballots, which are evidence in theelection contest, can a meaningful and final determination in this electioncontest be made," said the Florida high court's majority opinion, written byJustice Harry Lee Anstead.
Chief Justice Charles T. Wells and Justice Major B. Harding wrotedissenting opinions, and Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr. joined in the dissentingopinion of Harding.
"I could not more strongly disagree with their decision to reverse thetrial court and prolong this judicial process," Wells wrote in a dissent thatcharacterized as "imponderable" the problems created by his colleagues'decision. "I also believe that the majority's decision cannot withstand thescrutiny which will certainly immediately follow under the United StatesConstitution.
"I have a deep and abiding concern that the prolonging of judicial processin this counting contest propels this country and this state into anunprecedented and unnecessary constitutional crisis. I have to conclude thatthere is a real and present likelihood that this constitutional crisis will dosubstantial damage to our country, our state and to this Court as aninstitution."
The ruling set off a mad scramble on both sides, as Bush attorneys rushedto appeal the ruling - a plea to stay the new recount was lodged with U.S. Supreme Court last night - and Gore attorneys rushed to get the count going,everyone painfully cognizant of the Tuesday deadline for the state to name the25 electors who hold the key to the White House.
In their opinion, the justices, all of whom were appointed by Democraticgovernors, appeared to mirror the divided electorate, split almost down themiddle.
In its 40-page opinion, the majority was mindful of a ruling Monday by theU.S. Supreme Court that sought clarification from the state court on the legalbasis for its Nov. 21 decision in another presidential election case.
The justices liberally referenced state laws and quoted from a legislativeelection reform committee to support their decision.
"The clear message from this legislative policy is that every citizen'svote be counted whenever possible, whether in an election for a localcommissioner or an election for the President of the United States," themajority said.
The justices joined that to a candidate's "right to a correct count." Infinding fault with Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls, they agreedwith Gore's position that the number of undervotes was "sufficient to at leastplace in doubt the result of the election."
"Thousands of uncounted votes could obviously make a difference. ... Wemust do everything required by law to ensure that legal votes have not beencounted are included in the final election results," the justices wrote.
The court also found that Sauls' decision not to review the contestedballots put the vice president in the "ultimate Catch 22": The electionreturns were accepted as evidence in the contest trial but then not examined.
The justices opted for a "common sense approach" to the election quandary.In doing so, they considered the arguments of Gore and Bush.
The court ordered immediate manual recounts of the undervotes in Miami-DadeCounty - as the vice president requested - and also required that similarballots across the state undergo the same inspection.
The justices returned the case to the Leon County Circuit Court forimplementation of their order.
The dissenting judges appeared to think a statewide recount of those voteswas not mandatory. One spoke of the order as requiring such recounts fromMiami-Dade County or all counties. Another dissenter said the majority hadgiven the Leon County judge the option to order a statewide recount.
In the majority opinion, the four justices concluded that Sauls had erredin refusing to order manual recounts of 9,000 undercounted ballots fromMiami-Dade County.
The court also ordered that 215 votes from Palm Beach County and 168 fromMiami-Dade be added to the Gore column. Those were votes produced in thepartial manual recounts in those counties that were rejected by FloridaSecretary of State Katherine Harris and subsequently by the Circuit Court.
The standard to be used to count votes, the justices said, is "the one tobe provided by the Legislature," which requires the ballot to show "a clearintent of the voter" but provided no further guidance about whether to countthe now famous "dimpled chads."
Sauls recused himself from this round of counting, and another Leon judge,Terry Lewis, took over. He ruled last night that a recount of Miami-Dade - thecounty with the most undervotes - would begin today at 8 a.m. Its ballots wereordered moved to Tallahassee by Sauls as part of the Gore campaign's contestof the state election. Lewis set a target of 2 p.m. tomorrow for completingthe count.
The other counties with the largest numbers of undervotes were Duval County(Jacksonville), with 4,967; Hillsborough (Tampa) with 5,531; and Pinellas (St.Petersburg) with 4,226.
Some counties wanted to start counting last night but were stymied becausethe undercounted ballots weren't separated from other ballots. Rick Mullaney,a Canvassing Board member in Duval County, said that county was havingcomputer software and hardware flown in from Miami-Dade County to complete thetask this morning.
Elections officials estimated it would take two hours to install thesoftware and an additional dozen or so hours to separate the ballots. Thatmeant actual counting might not start until tomorrow. At least 20 countiesplanned to begin their counts today, two others tomorrow and two Monday.
Bush or his supporters took four separate actions yesterday to try to getthe state court ruling blocked. None had succeeded last night, but each wasexpected to draw some response today.
The Texas governor's legal strategists made what was likely to be a futileplea to the Florida court to postpone its ruling until it could be challengedbefore the U.S. Supreme Court.
With no action on that, the Bush team turned to Washington and asked theSupreme Court directly to postpone the ruling and to grant an immediate reviewof the state court decision.
The justices gave the Gore attorneys until today to answer those filings,with the court then likely to act quickly. Last night, the attorneys for threeBrevard County voters returned to the appeals court in Atlanta with a requestto block the new Florida Supreme Court ruling. Court officials said therewould be no action on that plea last night. A response from the Gore team isexpected this morning.
Reaction to the ruling was predictably along party lines. Democrats hailedthe development, the first time in a month that their candidate seemed to havea solid chance of victory.
"This decision is not just a victory for Al Gore and his supporters but for... democracy itself," said Gore campaign manager William M. Daley.
Bush campaign chairman James A. Baker III said: "This is what happens whenfor the first time in modern history a candidate resorts to lawsuits to try tooverturn the outcome of an election for president. "It is very sad. It is sadfor Florida. It is sad for the nation. And it is sad for our democracy."
The developments occurred hours after the Florida Legislature began aspecial session called by its Republican leadership.
Sen. Daniel Webster said the rulings didn't change the legislature's focus,saying, "We want to make sure we have 25 electors on Dec. 18. We're onlywanting finality."
He played down the significance of the Florida Supreme Court ruling, sayingit didn't surprise him. From listening to the judges' questions, he said, "Isensed it was really split, just like the election, three to three andsomebody broke the tie."
The high court's announcement nearly obscured another judicial ruling -this one in favor of Bush - earlier in the day by two Leon County CircuitCourt judges who refused to throw out nearly 25,000 absentee ballots inSeminole and Martin counties. Both cases were immediately appealed to theFlorida high court.
Democrats had asked Circuit Court judges to throw out the ballots becausethe applications were improperly filled out and Republican Party workersaltered the ballot applications.
Bush would have lost his 537-vote certified statewide lead had theDemocrats prevailed.
In an unusual move, Lewis and Judge Nikki Ann Clark - presiding over theMartin and Seminole cases, respectively - issued a joint statement rejectingthe Democrats' arguments and concluding that the ballots are valid.
"Despite irregularities in the requests for absentee ballots, neither thesanctity of the ballots nor the integrity of the elections has beencompromised," a court clerk read from a prepared statement.
Gerald Richman, the lead lawyer for the Democrats in the Seminole case, hadargued that political parties should not be able "to get away with this kindof chicanery."
Bush attorney Ben Ginsburg called the opinions "extremely strong and wellrooted in fact."
Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston contributed to this article.