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In the end there was no time left for Gore

December 15, 2000

Late Wednesday evening, Al Gore, the US vice president, read out a concession speech which ended his bid for the most powerful job in the world. This followed the US Supreme Court's 7-3 landmark ruling over Bush versus Gore, which reversed the Florida Supreme Court's decision and effectively buried Gore's hope of adding more ticks to his vote column through a manual recount in the state of Florida.

George W Bush, the Texas governor, emerged as the victor, standing to collect all the 25 electoral votes in Florida where he won over Gore by a razor-slim margin of more than 500 votes from more than six million cast on November 7. The secretary of state of Florida has already certified this result, which Gore contested but will now stand by the US Supreme Court's ruling.

The drama of US presidential politics, fraught with legal wrangles, has unfolded over the past more than one month to exemplify the strength of American democracy and its unrivalled system of government.

When the legal dispute reached the courtroom of the highest court of the land, both Gore and Bush knew the matter had to end there. They had to accept the outcome whichever way it went. As Gore put it, "I am disappointed with the ruling, but I accept it."

Underlying the Bush versus Gore drama was equal protection and the due process of law. The majority of the justices of the Supreme Court viewed that Florida voters, as argued by Theodore Olson, Bush's attorney, would not be entitled to equal protection if the manual recount was allowed to continue. For how could one ensure equal protection for the voters when their disputed ballots were counted differently by different canvassing board members or by different counties?

On Friday the Bush legal team succeeded in petitioning the Supreme Court for an order to halt the manual recount, which could have produced more disputed votes for Gore. Olson argued that the Florida Supreme Court was rewriting a new law instead of interpreting the law in its order for a manual recount. The Florida Supreme Court, with a split five-four decision, ordered a manual recount, which gave Gore the momentum to seize over Florida.

But when the case was brought forward to the US Supreme Court on Monday, the momentum shifted to the Bush campaign. The majority of the justices, who are conservative, did not buy the manual recount. What would be the standard of the manual recount for the disputed ballots from county to county? David Boies, Gore's attorney, was caught dumbstruck when questioned by one of the justices to define a uniform way to count the disputed votes. Boies, who tamed Microsoft in an anti-trust litigation on behalf of the US Justice Department, replied that it was a tough question. But throughout the 45-minute oral argument, Boies insisted that the uniform standard to count the votes would depend on each county tasked with the responsibility of reading the "intent of the voters". Gore's attorney argued that how could democracy be preserved or how could the voice of the American people be heard if each vote was not counted?

Unfortunately for Gore, time was not on his side. The Florida legislature had a deadline of December 12 to certify the statewide vote. It went ahead and did so without waiting for the Supreme Court's decision. Moreover, December 18 is the date that the electors from the electoral college have to pick their choice of president. This due process of the law has made it almost impossible to recount the votes in time to meet the statutory deadlines.

The US Supreme Court's landmark ruling marks the first time that the judicial branch of the government has intervened in presidential politics and shaped the course of its outcome. The justices are nominated by the president or the executive branch and confirmed by the Senate. Their task is to interpret the US constitution and to guard the rules of law. The Congress writes or creates the law, while the executive branch conducts the affairs of the government. When a presidential race is tight and reaches a deadlock, the Supreme Court has to step in to bring the matter to an end. If the dispute spills over to the Congress, where bipartisan bickering is out of control, there is a chance that the integrity of the American system of democracy could be irreparably harmed.




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