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Law School Case Brief

Bush v. Palm Beach Cty. Canvassing Bd. - 531 U.S. 70, 121 S. Ct. 471 (2000)


As a general rule, the United States Supreme Court defers to a state supreme court's interpretation of a state statute. But in the case of a law enacted by a state legislature applicable not only to elections to state offices, but also to the election of presidential electors, the legislature is not acting solely under the authority given it by the people of the state, but by virtue of a direct grant of authority made under U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 2.


On November 8, 2000, the day following a Presidential election, the Florida division of elections reported that the Republican candidate for President, Governor George W. Bush, had received 2,909,135 votes and the Democratic candidate, Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., had received 2,907,351 votes, a margin of 1,784 votes. Pursuant to a Florida statute, an automatic machine recount occurred and resulted in an even smaller margin of victory for Governor Bush. Vice President Gore then exercised his state statutory right to submit written requests for manual recounts in four counties. On November 14, Vice President Gore, a Florida state county, a second Florida state county's canvassing board, and the Florida Democratic party filed an action in a Florida state circuit court, which ruled that (1) the 7-day deadline set by a state statutory provision for filing election returns was mandatory; (2) a county's board could amend its returns at a later date, and (3) Florida's secretary of state (SOS) could exercise her discretion in deciding whether to include the late amended returns in the SOS's statewide certification of the election results. After the SOS determined that none of the submissions by four counties justified an extension of the deadline, the circuit court, on November 17, ruled that the SOS had not acted arbitrarily and had exercised her discretion in a reasonable manner.

On appeal, the Florida's appellate court certified the matter to the Florida Supreme Court, which enjoined the SOS and a Florida commission from finally certifying the election results and declaring a winner until further order of that court. On November 21, the Florida Supreme Court issued a decision, which effectively extended the 7-day statutory deadline -- assuming that it would have applied -- by 12 days and directed the SOS to accept manual recounts submitted prior to the extended deadline, as the Florida Supreme Court determined that: (1) under the plain text of the Florida statutes, a discrepancy between a sample manual recount and machine returns, due to the way in which a ballot was punched or marked, constituted an error in vote tabulation that was sufficient to trigger the state statutory provisions for a full manual recount; (2) ruled that with respect to ignoring late returns, the "may"-ignore language of one statutory provision controlled over the "shall"-ignore language of another provision; (3) relied in part upon a right-to-vote provision in the Florida constitution in concluding that late manual recounts could be rejected only under limited circumstances; and (4) invoked the equitable powers of the court to fashion a remedy, in view of what the court said was a reluctance to rewrite Florida's election code (772 So. 2d 1220, 2000 Fla. LEXIS 2311). On November 24, the United States Supreme Court granted a certiorari petition by Governor Bush and set an expedited schedule for review.


Was there sufficient reason for the United States Supreme Court to decline to review the federal questions asserted?




Less than two weeks after the United States Supreme Court  granted Bush's petition for certiorari review, the Court vacated the Florida Supreme Court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. In a per curiam opinion expressing the unanimous view of the Court, it was held that there was considerable uncertainty as to the precise grounds for the Florida Supreme Court's decision. This alone was sufficient reason for the United States Supreme Court to decline, at that time, to review the federal questions asserted to be present--as the United States Supreme Court was unclear as to (1) the extent to which the Florida Supreme Court saw the state's constitution as circumscribing the legislature's authority under U.S. Const. Art. I, 1, cl 2, and (2) the consideration which the Florida Supreme Court accorded to 3 U.S.C.S. § 5, the federal statute regarding state electors.

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