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Published: Saturday, 12/9/2000

Florida recount halted by high court

BY TERRANCE HUNT
AP WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT

It was the latest and most dramatic split so far in a season of political division.

The high court ordered both sides to present oral arguments Monday on the underlying legal issues in the marathon recount case and one justice suggested that Bush might hold an upper hand in the court's eventual decision.

The court's decision froze the recount of thousands of ballots in dozens of Florida counties just hours after they had started. By midday, Gore had picked up two votes, reducing Bush's lead to a bare 191 according to an unofficial Associated Press count.

Saturday's decision was the latest abrupt turn in an unprecedented, 32-day marathon that has left the nation in uncertainty and suspense.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor voted to halt the counts. Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented.

The majority's order was contained in one brief paragraph. Scalia wrote an unusual accompanying statement making plain that he believes Bush had the stronger argument.

``It suffices to say that the issuance of the stay suggests that a majority of the court, while not deciding the issues presented, believe that the petitioner has a substantial probability of success,'' Scalia wrote.

Before the court's intervention, a still ebullient Gore held a conference call with supporters. ``Years from now, we'll be telling our grandchildren about this,'' the vice president said. ``You all will be able to take pride in the fact that, despite great pressure, you fought valiantly for our democratic values.''

Returning to the confusion of dimpled, swinging and hanging chads, election officials had been examining thousands of ballots where counting machines failed to register a vote for president. They operated under the watchful eye of Republican and Democratic observers and under a gag order imposed by the state judge who imposed a deadline of 2 p.m. Sunday.

Bush attorneys implored the Supreme Court to stop the process, and argued in Florida that the month-old ballots had ``degraded'' to the point of being untrustworthy. Gore lawyers said the ``will of the voters'' must be heard.

Florida's 25 electoral votes would give Gore or Bush the majority they need to win the White House. The state's electoral votes were awarded to Bush two weeks ago when the secretary of state certified a state count that prompted Gore's successful challenge Friday before the divided state Supreme Court.



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