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The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Federalism

What did the U.S. Supreme Court decide in the 2000 presidential election case?

In the tightly contested presidential election of 2000, between the Republican nominee, Texas governor George W. Bush, and the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, the result came down to Florida and its twenty-five electoral votes. Whichever of the two candidates carried the state would win the presidency.

Bush narrowly held the lead in Florida after the initial vote tally. After an automatic machine recount, Bush maintained an even narrower lead. Gore’s legal team then filed legal motions, asking for manual recounts of votes in four counties. They alleged there were many voters who intended to vote for Gore but who did not mark the ballot properly. The Bush legal team sought to stop the recount process and have Bush declared the winner.

The Florida Supreme Court had ruled 4–3 that a manual recount should proceed. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed by a controversial 5–4 vote in Bush v. Gore (2000). The majority reasoned that there were equal protection problems in ensuring fairness in the manual recount process.

“Instead, we are presented with a situation where a state court with the power to assure uniformity has ordered a statewide recount with minimal procedural safeguards,” the Court wrote. “When a court orders a statewide remedy, there must be at least some assurance that the rudimentary requirements of equal treatment and fundamental fairness are satisfied.”

Three justices in the majority—Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas—wrote a concurring opinion explaining that the Florida Supreme Court decision was invalid because Article II of the U.S. Constitution provides that state legislatures, not state supreme courts, have the exclusive power in such election matters.

Several of the dissenting justices bitterly criticized the ruling. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: “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.”



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