ATLANTA — A federal appeals court Wednesday rejected George W. Bush's bid to nullify hundreds of hand-counted Florida ballots, saying he suffered no substantial harm even though his minuscule lead over Al Gore shrank by nearly 400 votes.
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling a day after hearing oral arguments, upheld a federal judge in Miami, who last month rejected Texas Gov. Bush's request to immediately halt the recounts.
The manual tallies cut Bush's lead from 930 votes to 537 out of roughly 6 million cast statewide, the margin that made him the certified winner in Florida on Nov. 26.
In rejecting his appeal, judges ruled that Bush was "suffering no serious harm, let alone irreparable harm" from the hand count, since he was certified the winner "notwithstanding the inclusion of manually recounted ballots" from Volusia and Broward counties.
"Moreover," the judges continued, "even if manual recounts were to resume pursuant to a state court order, it is wholly speculative as to whether the results of those recounts may eventually place Vice President Gore ahead."
In a separate but related ruling, the court also rejected claims by three Florida Republican voters that the hand recounts created an unconstitutional two-tier voting system. The judges, however, sidestepped constitutional questions and focused merely on the issue of halting the hand counting of ballots.
The Gore campaign hailed the decision, saying it freed the Florida Supreme Court to order a recount of 14,000 contested ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. A Leon County judge rejected Gore's bid to count those ballots, and the vice president's appeal will be taken up today by Florida's high court.
The federal panel split 8-4 in Gore's favor. All of the dissenters were Republican appointees.
In their dissents, Judges Gerald Bard Tjoflat, Ed Carnes, Joel A. Dubina and Stanley F. Birch Jr. agreed with Bush attorneys that the recounts were unfair because they were conducted in select Democratic-leaning counties and because there were no consistent standards in counting ballots.
The dissenters also echoed the Bush campaign in criticizing the Florida Supreme Court's decision to extend the one-week state deadline for certifying votes. The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in still another Bush lawsuit, sent the decision back to the Florida justices on Monday for further clarification.
"By changing the 'rules of the game' after it was played, the Supreme Court debased the votes of thousands of Florida voters and denied them the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment," the dissenting justices wrote.
Tjoflat wrote a separate dissent criticizing the lack of standards in Florida's manual recount statute. He said other states have clear standards. "Absent similar clear and certain standards, Florida's manual recount scheme cannot pass constitutional muster," Tjoflat said.