WASHINGTON — In a dramatic coda to a remarkable election, a divided U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday night for Texas Gov. George W. Bush to become the nation's 43rd president by calling a halt to the counting of Florida's disputed ballots.
Capping hours of suspenseful deliberations, the justices voted, 5 to 4, to overturn a Florida Supreme Court decision allowing the hand tabulations sought by Vice President Al Gore.
The Bush camp hailed the decision as an unqualified triumph. The Gore camp withheld comment pending further study of the ruling.
But pressure mounted on Gore to concede, as fellow Democrats immediately started coaxing him to abandon his postelection struggle.
"This is it," said Ed Rendell, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"Clearly the race for the presidency has come to an end," agreed Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).
The high court decision, a complicated skein of overlapping opinions, provided a fittingly confusing end to a campaign that has been muddled from the moment the polls closed.
The opinion in Bush vs. Gore was handed down at 10 p.m. EST, exactly five weeks after the election night debacle in which the television networks first called the presidency for Bush, then judged it too close to call.
The justices said that a hand recount would be unfair and unconstitutional because the state of Florida lacked a clear standard for deciding what is a legal vote. It is too late to set such standards, the court's conservative majority said.
Gore hoped a recount of several thousand undervotes--ballots that failed to register a preference when run through counting machines--would help him overcome Bush's Florida lead of fewer than 200 votes. Both candidates need the state's 25 electoral votes to claim the White House.
But the Supreme Court's decision suggests the court's majority was determined to block Gore from winning the bitterly fought Florida race by hand counting disputed ballots.
The majority cited the federal law that says the state's choice of electors "shall be conclusive" so long as all disputes are settled by Dec. 12, today, six days before the electors meet in state capitals to vote for the next president.
And by overturning the Florida Supreme Court's ruling, the high court rejected Gore's last remaining challenge.
All five justices in the majority are Republicans who were appointed by Presidents Nixon, Reagan or Bush.
In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a Clinton appointee, called Tuesday's decision a "self-inflicted wound--a wound that may harm not just the court but the nation."
The other dissenters angrily criticized the conservatives for first stopping the hand recounts on Saturday and then announcing late Tuesday that there was no time to resume them with clear standards.
"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 law," wrote dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by Republican President Ford.
The justices ruled hours after the GOP-run Florida House approved a resolution awarding the state's 25 electors to Bush--an action that may now be moot.
In another boost for Bush, the Florida Supreme Court refused to throw out thousands of absentee ballots in Republican-leaning Seminole and Martin counties--a move that could have pushed Gore into the lead in Florida for the first time since the Nov. 7 election. The vice president was never a party to the suits, but he took a keen interest in their progress.
Ruling 6-0, the Florida justices said the absentee votes should count even though local election officials allowed GOP activists to correct absentee ballot applications that were improperly filled out. Democrats, who did not have the same opportunity, argued that Bush received more than 2,000 votes because of the arrangements--and said it amounted to election fraud.
The high court disagreed. Reading a summary of their ruling on the courthouse steps, spokesman Craig Waters said the justices could find no evidence of fraud in either case and upheld the lower courts' rejection of the lawsuits last week.
"That's it," Ken Wright, an attorney for the Florida Republican Party, said after the decision. "I think the fat lady has sung."
But the decisive blow came from the high court in Washington.
The five conservative justices were divided among themselves as to why the Florida court should be reversed. The fractured set of opinions strongly suggests that they found it much easier to agree on a result than a reason.
In the end, the ruling was surprisingly limited. The majority did not conclude that the hand recounts ordered by the Florida courts were unnecessary or illegal. Further, the high court did not rule that the Florida judges had changed the rules after election day.