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Bush v. Gore (00-949)
Opinion
[ Per curiam ]
Concurrence
[ Rehnquist ]
Dissent
[ Stevens ]
Dissent
[ Souter ]
Dissent
[ Ginsburg ]
Dissent
[ Breyer ]
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Souter, J., dissenting

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


No. 00—949

GEORGE W. BUSH, et al., PETITIONERS v.
ALBERT GORE, Jr., et al.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

[December 12, 2000]

    Justice Souter, with whom Justice Breyer joins and with whom Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg join with regard to all but Part C, dissenting.

    The Court should not have reviewed either Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Bd., ante, p. ___ (per curiam), or this case, and should not have stopped Florida’s attempt to recount all undervote ballots, see ante at ___, by issuing a stay of the Florida Supreme Court’s orders during the period of this review, see Bush v. Gore, post at ____ (slip op., at 1). If this Court had allowed the State to follow the course indicated by the opinions of its own Supreme Court, it is entirely possible that there would ultimately have been no issue requiring our review, and political tension could have worked itself out in the Congress following the procedure provided in 3 U.S.C. § 15. The case being before us, however, its resolution by the majority is another erroneous decision.

    As will be clear, I am in substantial agreement with
the dissenting opinions of Justice Stevens, Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer. I write separately only to say how straightforward the issues before us really are.

    There are three issues: whether the State Supreme Court’s interpretation of the statute providing for a contest of the state election results somehow violates 3 U.S.C. § 5; whether that court’s construction of the state statutory provisions governing contests impermissibly changes a state law from what the State’s legislature has provided, in violation of Article II, §1, cl. 2, of the national Constitution; and whether the manner of interpreting markings on disputed ballots failing to cause machines to register votes for President (the undervote ballots) violates the equal protection or due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. None of these issues is difficult to describe or to resolve.

A

    The 3 U.S.C. § 5 issue is not serious. That provision sets certain conditions for treating a State’s certification of Presidential electors as conclusive in the event that a dispute over recognizing those electors must be resolved in the Congress under 3 U.S.C. § 15. Conclusiveness requires selection under a legal scheme in place before the election, with results determined at least six days before the date set for casting electoral votes. But no State is required to conform to §5 if it cannot do that (for whatever reason); the sanction for failing to satisfy the conditions of §5 is simply loss of what has been called its “safe harbor.” And even that determination is to be made, if made anywhere, in the Congress.

B

    The second matter here goes to the State Supreme Court’s interpretation of certain terms in the state statute governing election “contests,” Fla. Stat. §102.168 (2000); there is no question here about the state court’s interpretation of the related provisions dealing with the antecedent process of “protesting” particular vote counts, §102.166, which was involved in the previous case, Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board. The issue is whether the judgment of the state supreme court has displaced the state legislature’s provisions for election contests: is the law as declared by the court different from the provisions made by the legislature, to which the national Constitution commits responsibility for determining how each State’s Presidential electors are chosen? See U.S. Const., Art. II, §1, cl. 2. Bush does not, of course, claim that any judicial act interpreting a statute of uncertain meaning is enough to displace the legislative provision and violate Article II; statutes require interpretation, which does not without more affect the legislative character of a statute within the meaning of the Constitution. Brief for Petitioners 48, n. 22, in Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Bd., et al., 531 U.S. ___ (2000). What Bush does argue, as I understand the contention, is that the interpretation of §102.168 was so unreasonable as to transcend the accepted bounds of statutory interpretation, to the point of being a nonjudicial act and producing new law untethered to the legislative act in question.

    The starting point for evaluating the claim that the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation effectively re-wrote §102.168 must be the language of the provision on which Gore relies to show his right to raise this contest: that the previously certified result in Bush’s favor was produced by “rejection of a number of legal votes sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election.” Fla. Stat. §102.168(3)(c) (2000). None of the state court’s interpretations is unreasonable to the point of displacing the legislative enactment quoted. As I will note below, other interpretations were of course possible, and some might have been better than those adopted by the Florida court’s majority; the two dissents from the majority opinion of that court and various briefs submitted to us set out alternatives. But the majority view is in each instance within the bounds of reasonable interpretation, and the law as declared is consistent with Article II.

    1.  The statute does not define a “legal vote,” the rejection of which may affect the election. The State Supreme Court was therefore required to define it, and in doing that the court looked to another election statute, §101.5614(5), dealing with damaged or defective ballots, which contains a provision that no vote shall be disregarded “if there is a clear indication of the intent of the voter as determined by a canvassing board.” The court read that objective of looking to the voter’s intent as indicating that the legislature probably meant “legal vote” to mean a vote recorded on a ballot indicating what the voter intended. Gore v. Harris, __ So. 2d __ (slip op., at 23—25) (Dec. 8, 2000). It is perfectly true that the majority might have chosen a different reading. See, e.g., Brief for Respondent Harris et al. 10 (defining “legal votes” as “votes properly executed in accordance with the instructions provided to all registered voters in advance of the election and in the polling places”). But even so, there is no constitutional violation in following the majority view; Article II is unconcerned with mere disagreements about interpretive merits.

    2.  The Florida court next interpreted “rejection” to determine what act in the counting process may be attacked in a contest. Again, the statute does not define the term. The court majority read the word to mean simply a failure to count. ____ So. 2d, at___ (slip op., at 26—27). That reading is certainly within the bounds of common sense, given the objective to give effect to a voter’s intent if that can be determined. A different reading, of course, is possible. The majority might have concluded that “rejection” should refer to machine malfunction, or that a ballot should not be treated as “reject[ed]” in the absence of wrongdoing by election officials, lest contests be so easy to claim that every election will end up in one. Cf. id., at ____ (slip op., at 48) (Wells, C. J., dissenting). There is, however, nothing nonjudicial in the Florida majority’s more hospitable reading.

    3.      The same is true about the court majority’s understanding of the phrase “votes sufficient to change or place in doubt” the result of the election in Florida. The court held that if the uncounted ballots were so numerous that it was reasonably possible that they contained enough “legal” votes to swing the election, this contest would be authorized by the statute.1 While the majority might have thought (as the trial judge did) that a probability, not a possibility, should be necessary to justify a contest, that reading is not required by the statute’s text, which says nothing about probability. Whatever people of good will and good sense may argue about the merits of the Florida court’s reading, there is no warrant for saying that it transcends the limits of reasonable statutory interpretation to the point of supplanting the statute enacted by the “legislature” within the meaning of Article II.

    In sum, the interpretations by the Florida court raise no substantial question under Article II. That court engaged in permissible construction in determining that Gore had instituted a contest authorized by the state statute, and it proceeded to direct the trial judge to deal with that contest in the exercise of the discretionary powers generously conferred by Fla. Stat. §102.168(8) (2000), to “fashion such orders as he or she deems necessary to ensure that each allegation in the complaint is investigated, examined, or checked, to prevent or correct any alleged wrong, and to provide any relief appropriate under such circumstances.” As Justice Ginsburg has persuasively explained in her own dissenting opinion, our customary respect for state interpretations of state law counsels against rejection of the Florida court’s determinations in this case.

C

    It is only on the third issue before us that there is a meritorious argument for relief, as this Court’s Per Curiam opinion recognizes. It is an issue that might well have been dealt with adequately by the Florida courts if the state proceedings had not been interrupted, and if not disposed of at the state level it could have been considered by the Congress in any electoral vote dispute. But because the course of state proceedings has been interrupted, time is short, and the issue is before us, I think it sensible for the Court to address it.

    Petitioners have raised an equal protection claim (or, alternatively, a due process claim, see generally Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422 (1982)), in the charge that unjustifiably disparate standards are applied in different electoral jurisdictions to otherwise identical facts. It is true that the Equal Protection Clause does not forbid the use of a variety of voting mechanisms within a jurisdiction, even though different mechanisms will have different levels of effectiveness in recording voters’ intentions; local variety can be justified by concerns about cost, the potential value of innovation, and so on. But evidence in the record here suggests that a different order of disparity obtains under rules for determining a voter’s intent that have been applied (and could continue to be applied) to identical types of ballots used in identical brands of machines and exhibiting identical physical characteristics (such as “hanging” or “dimpled” chads). See, e.g., Tr., at 238—242 (Dec. 2—3, 2000) (testimony of Palm Beach County Canvassing Board Chairman Judge Charles Burton describing varying standards applied to imperfectly punched ballots in Palm Beach County during precertification manual recount); id., at 497—500 (similarly describing varying standards applied in Miami-Dade County); Tr. of Hearing 8—10 (Dec. 8, 2000) (soliciting from county canvassing boards proposed protocols for determining voters’ intent but declining to provide a precise, uniform standard). I can conceive of no legitimate state interest served by these differing treatments of the expressions of voters’ fundamental rights. The differences appear wholly arbitrary.

    In deciding what to do about this, we should take account of the fact that electoral votes are due to be cast in six days. I would therefore remand the case to the courts of Florida with instructions to establish uniform standards for evaluating the several types of ballots that have prompted differing treatments, to be applied within and among counties when passing on such identical ballots in any further recounting (or successive recounting) that the courts might order.

    Unlike the majority, I see no warrant for this Court to assume that Florida could not possibly comply with this requirement before the date set for the meeting of electors, December 18. Although one of the dissenting justices of the State Supreme Court estimated that disparate standards potentially affected 170,000 votes, Gore v. Harris, supra, ___ So. 2d, at ___ (slip op., at 66), the number at issue is significantly smaller. The 170,000 figure apparently represents all uncounted votes, both undervotes (those for which no Presidential choice was recorded by a machine) and overvotes (those rejected because of votes for more than one candidate). Tr. of Oral Arg. 61—62. But as Justice Breyer has pointed out, no showing has been made of legal overvotes uncounted, and counsel for Gore made an uncontradicted representation to the Court that the statewide total of undervotes is about 60,000. Id., at 62. To recount these manually would be a tall order, but before this Court stayed the effort to do that the courts of Florida were ready to do their best to get that job done. There is no justification for denying the State the opportunity to try to count all disputed ballots now.

    I respectfully dissent.


Notes

1.  When the Florida court ruled, the totals for Bush and Gore were then less than 1,000 votes apart. One dissent pegged the number of uncounted votes in question at 170,000. Gore v. Harris, supra, __ So. 2d __ , (slip op., at 66) (opinion of Harding, J.). Gore’s counsel represented to us that the relevant figure is approximately 60,000, Tr. of Oral Arg. 62, the number of ballots in which no vote for President was recorded by the machines.