TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Just when it seemed Vice President Al Gore was gasping his last in a marathon struggle for the White House, the Florida Supreme Court gave him a shot of oxygen, ordering the manual recount of more than 40,000 contested Florida ballots that he hopes will allow him to sprint into the lead.
In a split decision that stunned both sides and set off a flurry of appeals and angry rhetoric, the court ruled 4-3 to overturn a trial court decision and award Gore 383 previously rejected ballots, reducing Texas Gov. George W. Bush's lead from 537 to 154 votes.
"Only by examining the contested ballots, which are evidence in the election contest, can a meaningful and final determination in this election contest be made," said the Florida high court's majority opinion, written by Justice Harry Lee Anstead.
Chief Justice Charles T. Wells and Justice Major B. Harding wrote dissenting opinions, and Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr. joined in the dissenting opinion of Harding.
"I could not more strongly disagree with their decision to reverse the trial court and prolong this judicial process," Wells wrote in a dissent that characterized as "imponderable" the problems created by his colleagues' decision. "I also believe that the majority's decision cannot withstand the scrutiny which will certainly immediately follow under the United States Constitution.
"I have a deep and abiding concern that the prolonging of judicial process in this counting contest propels this country and this state into an unprecedented and unnecessary constitutional crisis. I have to conclude that there is a real and present likelihood that this constitutional crisis will do substantial damage to our country, our state and to this Court as an institution."
The ruling set off a mad scramble on both sides, as Bush attorneys rushed to 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 the 25 electors who hold the key to the White House.
In their opinion, the justices, all of whom were appointed by Democratic governors, appeared to mirror the divided electorate, split almost down the middle.
In its 40-page opinion, the majority was mindful of a ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court that sought clarification from the state court on the legal basis for its Nov. 21 decision in another presidential election case.
The justices liberally referenced state laws and quoted from a legislative election reform committee to support their decision.
"The clear message from this legislative policy is that every citizen's vote be counted whenever possible, whether in an election for a local commissioner or an election for the President of the United States," the majority said.
The justices joined that to a candidate's "right to a correct count." In finding fault with Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls, they agreed with Gore's position that the number of undervotes was "sufficient to at least place in doubt the result of the election."
"Thousands of uncounted votes could obviously make a difference. ... We must do everything required by law to ensure that legal votes have not been counted are included in the final election results," the justices wrote.
The court also found that Sauls' decision not to review the contested ballots put the vice president in the "ultimate Catch 22": The election returns 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-Dade County - as the vice president requested - and also required that similar ballots across the state undergo the same inspection.
The justices returned the case to the Leon County Circuit Court for implementation of their order.
The dissenting judges appeared to think a statewide recount of those votes was not mandatory. One spoke of the order as requiring such recounts from Miami-Dade County or all counties. Another dissenter said the majority had given the Leon County judge the option to order a statewide recount.