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Context of 'December 11, 2000: US Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in ‘Bush v. Gore’; Justice Says ‘Counting of Votes’ Does ‘Irreparable Harm’ to Bush'

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The US Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the Bush presidential campaign’s challenge on constitutional grounds of Florida Supreme Court’s ruling on selective manual recounts (see November 20-21, 2000). The case is Bush v. Palm Beach Canvassing Board. Throngs of protesters surround the Supreme Court building. Inside, the justices’ questions indicate that they are divided on the legality of the Florida high court’s intervention, and some justices seem to think that Florida courts should resolve the issue. Justice Anthony Kennedy says, “We’re looking for a federal issue.” Justice Stephen Breyer asks, “What’s the consequence of our going one way or the other now in this case?” Observers will later describe Laurence Tribe, an experienced Supreme Court litigator representing the Gore campaign, as listless and flat, while Theodore Olson, arguing the Bush campaign’s case, is “more impressive.” Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia give the impression that they believe the Florida Supreme Court encroached on the Florida legislature’s bailiwick. Justices Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) express their irritation with the Gore arguments. When the arguments are over, the justices meet in chambers for the usual conference. At one end of the argument is Scalia, who wants to overturn the Florida decision and in essence award George W. Bush the election, and at the other, Justice John Paul Stevens, who wants the Court to stay out of the case altogether. Neither justice can command a majority among the other seven. Rehnquist begins drafting a ruling asking the Florida high court to clarify its ruling, to cite the state constitution in its decision (which the Bush team had argued would have been improper), or under state law (which the Bush team had found arguably permissible). All nine justices eventually sign onto Rehnquist’s opinion. A 2004 Vanity Fair article will observe: “The unanimity was, in fact, a charade; four of the justices had no beef at all with the Florida Supreme Court, while at least four others were determined to overturn it. But this way each side could claim victory: the liberal-to-moderate justices had spared the Court a divisive and embarrassing vote on the merits, one they’d probably have lost anyway. As for the conservatives, by eating up Gore’s clock—Gore’s lawyers had conceded that everything had to be resolved by December 12—they had all but killed his chances to prevail, and without looking needlessly partisan in the process. With the chastened Florida court unlikely to intervene again, the election could now stagger to a close, with the Court’s reputation intact, and with Bush all but certain to win.” On December 4, in a setback for the Gore campaign, the Court unanimously sets aside the Florida Supreme Court ruling and remands for clarification the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. [Supreme Court of the United States, 12/4/2000; US News and World Report, 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12/17/2000; Vanity Fair, 10/2004; Leip, 2008]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., Al Gore presidential campaign 2000, Florida Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, US Supreme Court, County of Palm Beach (Florida), Laurence Tribe, John Paul Stevens, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, George W. Bush presidential campaign 2000, Vanity Fair, Stephen Breyer

Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections

An artist’s rendition of the nine Court justices hearing oral arguments in the ‘Bush v. Gore’ case.An artist’s rendition of the nine Court justices hearing oral arguments in the ‘Bush v. Gore’ case. [Source: Authentic History]The US Supreme Court begins hearing oral arguments in the lawsuit Bush v. Gore on the Florida recounts and election results. The Bush campaign has challenged the legality of a Florida Supreme Court ruling mandating the recounting of “undervote” ballots (see December 7-8, 2000). Bush lawyers argue that manual recounts violate the Constitution’s mandate of equal protection. Gore lawyers argue that the overriding issue is the importance of counting each vote cast. By the afternoon, the public is hearing the arguments via audiotapes. Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the Court’s most hardline conservatives, drew criticism when he said in an earlier opinion that the majority of the Court believed that George W. Bush had “a substantial probability of success,” a conclusion disputed by other justices such as John Paul Stevens. Scalia now says that he is inclined to vote in favor of Bush because, he says, “the counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm [to Bush]” (see December 8-9, 2000). [Guardian, 12/11/2000; US News and World Report, 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12/17/2000; Leip, 2008]
Kennedy Determines that 'Equal Protection' Is Key to Reversing Florida Decision - Al Gore’s lawyers, led by David Boies, believe that one of the Bush team’s arguments is flawed: the idea that the Florida Supreme Court exceeded its bounds restricts one appellate court far more than another appellate court is willing to condone. Unbeknownst to the Gore lawyers, Justice Anthony Kennedy agrees with the Gore team on this issue. Kennedy has no intention of finding in favor of the Gore position, but he does want the other four conservatives on the bench to come together behind the Bush argument that using different standards for ballot evaluation in different counties violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution, an argument that most of the justices, litigants, and clerks have not considered up until now. As a practical matter, enforcing a single standard of ballot evaluation among the disparate Florida counties would be virtually impossible. And the Court under the leadership of Chief Justice William Rehnquist has, until now, been reluctant to interpret the equal-protection clause except in the narrowest of circumstances. Neither the Bush nor the Gore lawyers had given that argument a lot of attention, but it will prove the linchpin of the Court’s majority decision. As oral arguments proceed, and Kennedy pretends to not understand why this is a federal argument, clerks for the liberal justices find themselves sourly amused at Kennedy’s pretense. “What a joke,” one says to another. When Kennedy cues Bush lawyer Theodore Olson that he is interested in the equal protection clause as an argument—“I thought your point was that the process is being conducted in violation of the equal-protection clause, and it is standardless”—Olson quickly pivots and begins building his case under that rubric. Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and David Souter use the equal-protection argument to suggest that the best and simplest solution is simply to remand the case back to the Florida Supreme Court and ask it to set a uniform standard. Breyer has been working for days to convince Kennedy to join the four liberals in sending the case back to Florida, and for a time during the oral arguments, believes he may have succeeded. The liberal clerks have no such hopes; they believe, correctly, that Kennedy is merely pretending to consider the option. “He probably wanted to think of himself as having wavered,” one clerk later says. A brief private chat with Scalia and his clerks during oral arguments may have swayed Kennedy back into the fold, assuming he is wavering at all.
Demands for Identical Standards among All Florida Counties - Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) rails at Boies over the idea that the 67 counties cannot all have the same standards of ballot evaluation, and shows impatience with Boies’s explanation that for over 80 years, the Florida courts have put the idea of “voter intent” over identical ballot identification standards. [Vanity Fair, 10/2004]

Entity Tags: David Souter, David Boies, Anthony Kennedy, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., Al Gore presidential campaign 2000, William Rehnquist, US Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, Stephen Breyer, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, George W. Bush, George W. Bush presidential campaign 2000, John Paul Stevens, Florida Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia

Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections

The US Supreme Court issues a ruling in Bush v. Gore (see December 11, 2000) that essentially declares George W. Bush (R-TX) the winner of the Florida presidential election, and thusly the winner of the US presidential election (see Mid-to-Late November 2000). The decision in Bush v. Gore is so complex that the Court orders that it not be used as precedent in future decisions. The 5-4 decision is split along ideological lines, with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor (see After 7:50 p.m. November 7, 2000 and (November 29, 2000)) and Anthony Kennedy, two “moderate conservatives,” casting the deciding votes. In the per curium opinion, the Court finds: “Because it is evident that any recount seeking to meet the Dec. 12 date will be unconstitutional… we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering the recount to proceed.… It is obvious that the recount cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirements of equal protection and due process without substantial additional work.” The decision says that the recounts as ordered by the Florida Supreme Court suffer from constitutional problems (see December 7-8, 2000). The opinion states that differing vote-counting standards from county to county and the lack of a single judicial officer to oversee the recount violate the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The majority opinion effectively precludes Vice President Al Gore from attempting to seek any other recounts on the grounds that a recount could not be completed by December 12, in time to certify a conclusive slate of electors. The Court sends the case back to the Florida Supreme Court “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.” Four justices issue stinging dissents. Justice John Paul Stevens writes: “One thing… is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer adds that “in this highly politicized matter, the appearance of a split decision runs the risk of undermining the public’s confidence in the court itself.” [Per Curiam (Bush et al v. Gore et al), 12/12/2000; US News and World Report, 12/13/2000; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12/17/2000; Leip, 2008]
Drafting Opinions - After oral arguments concluded the day before, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that if they were to remand the case back to Florida, that order must go out immediately in light of the approaching deadline for certification of results; Stevens quickly wrote a one-paragraph opinion remanding the case back to Florida and circulated it, though with no real hope that it would be adopted. The five conservative justices are determined to reverse the Florida decision. For the rest of the evening and well into the next day, December 12, the justices work on their opinions. Stevens prepares the main dissent, with the other three liberal justices preparing their own concurrences. Stevens and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg find no support whatsoever for the equal-protection argument, and say so in their writings. Justices Breyer and David Souter give the idea some weight; Souter says that the idea of uniform standards is a good one, but these standards should be created and imposed by the Florida judiciary or legislature. Stopping the recounts solves nothing, he writes. It soon becomes apparent that neither Kennedy nor O’Connor share Rehnquist’s ideas on the jurisdiction of the Florida court, and will not join him in that argument. Kennedy writes the bulk of the majority opinion; as predicted, his opinion focuses primarily on the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The liberal justices and clerks find Kennedy’s reasoning that stopping the recounts is the only way to ensure equal protection entirely unconvincing. Anthony Scalia circulates a sealed memo complaining about the tone of some of the dissents, asking that the dissenters not call into question the Court’s credibility. (His memo prompts Ginsburg to remove a footnote from her dissent commenting on Florida’s disenfranchised African-American voters; some of the liberal clerks see the incident as Ginsburg being bullied into compliance by Scalia. Subsequent investigations show that thousands of legitimate African-Americans were indeed disenfranchised—see November 7, 2000.) Kennedy sends a memo accusing the dissenters of “trashing the Court,” and says that the dissenters actually agree with his equal-protection argument far more than they want to admit. When he has a line inserted into his opinion reading, “Eight Justices of the Court agree that there are constitutional problems with the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court that demand a remedy,” some of Stevens’s clerks angrily telephone Kennedy’s clerks and accuse them of misrepresenting Stevens’s position. They demand that the line be removed. Kennedy refuses, and Stevens rewrites his opinion so that he is no longer associated with the position. Kennedy is forced to rewrite the statement to say that “seven,” not “eight” justices agree with his position. One of Stevens’s clerks, Eduardo Penalver, tells Kennedy clerk Grant Dixton that what Kennedy had done was disgusting and unprofessional. Breyer and his clerks are also unhappy about Kennedy’s assertion, but take no action. The line prompts many in the media to claim, falsely, that the decision is a 7-2 split and not a 5-4. The main document, a short unsigned opinion halting the recounts, is written by Kennedy. Two portions are particularly notable: Kennedy’s assertion that the ruling applies only to Bush, and not to future decisions; and that the Court had only reluctantly accepted the case. “That infuriated us,” one liberal clerk later recalls. “It was typical Kennedy bullsh_t, aggrandizing the power of the Court while ostensibly wringing his hands about it.” Rehnquist, Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas join the decision, though Scalia is unimpressed with Kennedy’s writing and reasoning. Reportedly, he later calls it a “piece of sh_t,” though he will deny making the characterization.
Lack of Consensus - The lack of consensus between the conservative justices is relatively minor. Among the four liberal justices, though, it is quite pronounced—though all four wish not to end the recounts, only Stevens has a strong position and has stayed with it throughout the process. Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer were far less certain of their opposition, and resultingly, their dissents, unlike the impassioned Stevens dissent, are relatively pallid. Some of the liberal clerks say that the four’s lack of consensus helped the solid conservative majority stay solid: “They gave just enough cover to the five justices and their defenders in the press and academia so that it was impossible to rile up the American people about these five conservative ideologues stealing the election.”
Final Loss - Gore, reading the opinion, finally realizes that he and his campaign never had a chance with the five conservative justices, though they had hoped that either O’Connor or Kennedy would join the four liberals (see (November 29, 2000)). He congratulates his legal team, led by David Boies, and commends it for making it so difficult for the Court to justify its decision. Some reports will circulate that Souter is depressed over the decision, with Newsweek reporting that he later tells a group of Russian judges that the decision was “the most outrageous, indefensible thing” the Court had ever done. He also reportedly says that had he had “one more day,” he could have convinced Kennedy to turn. However, Souter will deny the reports, and those who know him will say that such comments would be out of character for him. For her part, O’Connor will express surprise that anyone could be angry over the decision. As for Scalia, some Court observers believe that his open partisanship during the process will cost him any chance he may have had to be named chief justice. [Vanity Fair, 10/2004]

Entity Tags: David Souter, William Rehnquist, David Boies, Anthony Kennedy, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., Al Gore presidential campaign 2000, US Supreme Court, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas, George W. Bush presidential campaign 2000, George W. Bush, Florida Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens, Grant Dixton, Sandra Day O’Connor, Eduardo Penalver

Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections, Civil Liberties

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