The 2000 presidential election will be forever remembered as
having been decided by one vote: in a 5-4 decision, five conservative Republican Supreme
Court justices handed the election to the Republican candidate, George W. Bush. Few
decisions in American history have done more to tarnish the Courts image than Bush
In this essay, I make three points.
First, under well-established justiciability doctrines, the Court was wrong
to take and decide the case when it did. Second,
the Courts order on Saturday, Dec. 9, staying the recount in Florida, was outrageous
because the legal requirements for a stay were not met. Third, the Courts 5-4
decision on the merits relied on legal principles that have no basis in precedent and
factual premises that have no evidentiary support.
The Court Was Wrong to Take Bush v. Gore
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush on the ground that counting
ballots without a specific standard violates equal protection because of the likelihood of
inconsistencies. But the Court ignored that
this claim was not ripe for review and that Bush did not have standing to raise it.
Ripe-ness and standing are constitutional principles derived from Article III of the
Constitution. Because they are jurisdictional, federal courts are required to raise them
even if the parties do not.
Bushs equal protection argument was an as applied,
not a facial, challenge. Bushs
claim was not that Floridas election law was unconstitutional, but rather, that the
recount as actually done would lack equality. But
this could not be known until the count was completed.
Indeed, it is quite possible that after the counting was done, and after the
state trial court judge ruled on all of the objections, there would have been few
More profoundly, it is possible that Bush would have remained ahead
even after the counting. The Courts
decision in Bush v. Gore was thus an impermissible advisory opinion in violation of
Article III of the United States Constitution.
Also, and separately, Bush lacked standing to raise the equal
protection issue. The law is clear that a
party only may present injuries that he or she suffers.
Bush was not in any way denied equal protection; there was no allegation or
evidence that those counting the ballots were discriminating against him. Perhaps the Court assumed that Bush had
third-party standing to raise the claims of voters, but the case did not fit under either
of the exceptions that permit such standing; there was neither a close relationship to the
injured third parties nor reason to believe that they could not raise their own claims.
There is not a word about any of this in the Supreme Courts
opinions. The Supreme Court, in its haste to
decide the presidential election, disregarded these basic doctrines.
The Stay Order Was Wrong
Perhaps the Courts most egregious action in the entire saga was
its order, on Saturday, Dec. 9, staying the recount in Florida. The law is clear and long-established that the
Supreme Court may halt another courts order only if the person seeking the stay
demonstrates that he or she would suffer an irreparable injury without one.
There was no plausible basis for the Supreme Court to have found such
an irreparable injury to Bush in allowing the ballots to be counted while the case was
pending before it. Justice Antonin Scalia
released a short concurring opinion stating that there was irreparable harm.
His reasons, though, are specious. First, Scalia said the counting of votes that are
of questionable legality does in my view irreparable harm to [Bush] by casting a cloud on
what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election.
What, then, according to Scalia is the harm to Bush? The claim is that if
the recount puts Gore ahead, but the Supreme Court invalidates the recount, then
Bushs victory will lack legitimacy.
But the irony is that now Bushs election will be robbed of its
legitimacy because it resulted from a Supreme Court order that kept the votes from being
recounted. Much of the public will perceive
the Supreme Courts 5-4 ruling to halt the recount, split entirely along ideological
lines, as an act of partisan politics to give Bush the election. Justice Scalia professed
to be concerned about legitimacy, but he ignored how the Courts action will harm the
credibility of both the Supreme Court and the Bush presidency.
Besides, ultimately, someday soon, all of the ballots in Florida will
be recounted and even though it will be too late to affect the election, the results in
Florida will be known. If Bush is the loser, under Scalias reasoning, his election
then will be deprived of legitimacy anyway.
The Supreme Court gets to decide whether the recounted votes are
included in the tally, but it cannot and should not try to control public perceptions. Stopping the recount to enhance the publics
view of a Bush victory is just not an appropriate role for the Supreme Court.
Second, Justice Scalia argued that allowing the recount to occur now
could prevent a proper recount later because it is generally agreed that each manual
recount produces a degradation of the ballots, which renders a subsequent recount
inaccurate. This is a factual question decided by Justice Scalia without any
evidence whatsoever. More importantly, this argument ignores the reality that it was now
or never for a recount that matters in this election; Justice Scalia halted the recount so
as to protect a mythical recount that never could occur in time to meet the Tuesday, Dec.
12, deadline that the Court emphasized in its subsequent decision.
The simple reality is that Bush would have suffered no irreparable
injury by allowing the recount to continue pending a Supreme Court decision, while Gore
incurred an irreversible harm by stopping the recount. Under traditional legal principles,
the Supreme Courts stay order is indefensible.
The Court Was Wrong to End the Recount
The Courts final ruling, on Dec. 12, to end the recount had no
basis in law or fact. The majority opinion for the Court gave two reasons for ending the
First, the Court said that equal protection would be violated by
manual recounting without uniform standards to prevent inconsistencies as to what counts
as a vote. Second, the majority said that there was not time to develop such standards and
conduct the counting.
As to the equal protection argument, never before has the Supreme
Court ruled that variations within a state in counting votes is unconstitutional. The
reality is that there are many inconsistencies within Florida and every state. The Court
failed to explain why differences in counting are unconstitutional while other variances
among counties, such as in their voting machines, their ballots, and their treatment of
minority votes is permissible.
Moreover, the Supreme Court was wrong in saying that there was not a
uniform standard for counting votes. As the
Florida Supreme Court stated, the rule in Florida is that a ballot should be counted if
the intent of the voter is clear. A significant number of states use exactly this
standard. This rule is no more vague than
countless others in the legal system, such as the need for proof beyond a reasonable doubt
in a criminal case. Besides, there was a
procedure to create uniformity in Florida: review by a judge to resolve all disputes.
Even more troubling, as to the second issue, the Court offered no
persuasive rationale for ending the recount. Equality could be achieved in two ways:
stopping to count or having it continue with uniform standards. The Courts majority opinion said that there
was no time to complete the count by the Dec. 12 deadline. But the electoral college does
not vote until Dec. 18 and the Court did not explain why setting standards and conducting
the count would take longer than that. Even worse, the Court offered no reason for not
even trying to have the count done with uniform standards.
The Supreme Courts actions prevented the outcome of the
election in Florida from being known. Someday soon, when historians examine and count the
ballots, we may learn that the Supreme Court handed the election to the candidate who lost
Florida, as well as the popular vote nationally.
The Supreme Court failed America.
Erwin Chemerinsky is the
Sydney M. Irmas Professor of Public Interest Law, Legal Ethics, and Political Science at
the University of Southern California School of Law.