WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court, splitting 5-4 and risking its reputation for staying above politics, appeared to end the disputed presidential election by ruling last night for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
The five justices in the majority -- the same five who had halted vote recounts in Florida four days ago -- overturned a Florida Supreme Court that had ordered those recounts. The majority set up a series of barriers that will have the effect of barring any more counting.
Al Gore to concede.
It left Gore with no realistic legal remedy, because any steps he would seek to take in the wake of the court's ruling had to have been done by midnight last night.
The court, finishing its decision shortly before 9 p.m. after a day and a half of deliberations, issued its ruling nearly an hour later through a complex and scattered series of opinions: one unsigned main opinion; a separate, broader declaration by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist; and four dissenting opinions -- one written by each of the disagreeing justices.
The majority said that no one was more conscious than the justices themselves "of the vital limits on judicial authority" and that no one stood "more in admiration of the Constitution's design to leave the selection of the president to the people through their legislators and to the political sphere."
But, the majority added, the dispute over the presidency this year had been taken to the courts, and "it becomes our unsought responsibility to resolve the federal and constitutional issues the judicial system has been forced to confront."
Two of the dissenters leveled scathing accusations at the majority for having put the court's legitimacy in jeopardy.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the court's junior member, wrote: "In this highly politicized matter, the appearance of a split decision runs the risk of undermining the public's confidence in the court itself. That confidence is a public treasure."
The court, he said, should not have gotten involved. "What it does today, the court should have left undone," Breyer said.
Similarly strong complaints came from the court's senior associate justice, John Paul Stevens: "It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law. Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today's decision."
Directly linking the majority to the Bush campaign's "lack of confidence" in Florida's courts, Stevens said that "the endorsement of that position by the majority can only lend credence to the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land."
Aside from the 5-4 split that decided Bush's appeal in his favor, there was a separate line of division. The court split 7-2 on whether recounts done up to now in Florida are unconstitutional.
The seven who made up that majority said that the standards used to decide whether to count or cast aside a ballot treated voters in different parts of the state unequally and thus violated their constitutional rights.
But two of those seven wanted to remedy that violation by letting recounts resume under a new, uniform standard to be laid down by Florida state courts. The five others who found a constitutional violation opposed that remedy.
The court's two other justices said the recounts should be allowed to resume just as the Florida Supreme Court had outlined. Those two found no constitutional problems with the recounts completed so far, or with the standard used for judging ballots.
While that 7-2 division enabled those who wrote the unsigned main opinion to claim a larger majority on a key issue in the case, what actually counted in the end was the 5-4 margin to overturn the state court and make it virtually impossible for Gore to continue the contest he has been pursuing to Bush's certified victory, which was declared by state officials on Nov. 26.
Though the five-justice majority technically returned the case to the Florida Supreme Court "for further proceedings," the reality was that the majority would not allow any further counting to continue through Dec. 18, as two justices suggested.
The majority said it was accepting a responsibility it did not seek in deciding the case. But it found a way to assign primary responsibility to the Florida Supreme Court and the Florida Legislature.