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U.S. High Court Steps Into Fray

Justices, in Surprise, Set Friday Hearing for Bush Challenge

Vote: At issue is whether the results of the hand recounts in some Florida counties should be thrown out. Broward, Palm Beach are still counting, amid rowdy GOP protests.


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday stepped into the nation's acrimonious election fight, prolonging the deadlock at least another week by agreeing to hear George W. Bush's appeal of Florida's recount process.

As Al Gore continued eating into Bush's tiny lead in this decisive state, the high court surprised many legal experts by setting a Friday hearing on a challenge to the hand recounts that have yielded Gore several hundred votes.

The court agreed to consider whether to throw out the results of those tallies on grounds they violated a federal law governing the selection of each state's presidential electors. Appropriately enough, the law was passed after the election of 1876--the last time the nation faced such an enduring impasse.

At the same time, the court declined to review a Miami federal court decision that allowed the hand recounting to continue.

The tallies, now limited to several thousand disputed ballots, continued Friday in Broward and Palm Beach counties amid increasingly heated protests.

With Gore gaining in the recounts and Bush picking up some absentee votes, the Texas governor clung to a lead of 675 votes out of about 6 million cast statewide. The winner of Florida and its 25 electors will become the nation's 43rd president--barring any further twists.

To hasten a resolution, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris announced she would certify a winner Sunday night, opening her office to do so.

Earlier this week, in allowing the hand recounts to continue, the Florida Supreme Court set a 5 p.m. Sunday cutoff--but extended the deadline to 9 a.m. Monday in the event Harris' office was closed.

In appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush lawyers said that Florida's justices violated federal law by forbidding Harris to certify the election results on Nov. 14, the state's cutoff for counties to report election results.

In a one-sentence statement, the campaign expressed satisfaction that the court agreed to hear the case. Bush himself stayed out of sight, working the phones from his Central Texas ranch and checking in with running mate Dick Cheney, who left the hospital Friday after a mild heart attack.

While disappointed by the high court's decision, the Gore camp offered a measured response. "We're a nation of laws," said press secretary Chris Lehane. ". . . You either have to support the system or not. You can't pursue your own legal recourse and castigate others for pursuing theirs."

At the same time, Lehane reiterated Gore's intention of fighting beyond Sunday's certification, regardless of which candidate leads at that point.

"The entire campaign is resolute in its determination," Lehane said. ". . . We've always, from day one, believed Al Gore won more votes in Florida than George W. Bush."

Key Democrats showed no signs of wavering either--at least in public. Just to be sure, Gore, his running mate Joseph I. Lieberman and campaign chairman Bill Daley spent much of Friday calling party leaders to shore up support.

The cause was helped along by some of the GOP's increasingly aggressive tactics, including the staging of bigger and rowdier street protests outside counting centers in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

On Friday, a group of Democratic lawmakers asked the Justice Department to investigate whether GOP activists intimidated the Miami-Dade canvassing board into canceling its recount. The board reversed itself Wednesday and abruptly abandoned its hand count--a move that potentially cost Gore precious votes--after protests threatened to turn violent. Officials said they quit hand counts because it would have been impossible to meet the state's Sunday deadline.

In a letter to Bill Lan Lee, assistant attorney general for civil rights, the lawmakers asserted that protesters "managed to create a climate of fear and intimidation" in Miami.

The letter cited news accounts of "pounding and kicking individuals, pounding on doors, screaming threats and other intimidating acts" and said the accounts "suggest strongly that these events were orchestrated by the Bush campaign."

Among the half dozen lawmakers signing the letter was Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), who was manhandled Friday by a demonstrator while trying to give a TV interview in Fort Lauderdale.

Lieberman echoed the charges of intimidation Friday. "This is a time to honor the rule of law, not surrender to the rules of the mob."

Speaking outside the vice presidential mansion in Washington, Lieberman called on the demonstrators "and all who may be organizing or encouraging them, to stop these activities immediately," and urged Bush and Cheney to join the call.

At least some paid workers from Bush's campaign were among the protesters in Miami-Dade County. One Cheney aide appeared dressed in a pilgrim outfit outside the court there, accompanied by another campaign worker dressed in a turkey suit. The men carried a sign that read: "Don't stuff the ballot box."

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