Fla. Legislature to Hold Special Session

ByABC News

Dec. 7, 2000 -- If the courts don’t resolve Florida’s presidential election dispute soon, the state’s Republican lawmakers say they will.

As the legal wrangling between Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush drags on, the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature is poised to take a controversial action that could render moot all of the courtroom quarreling over manual ballot recounts.

“My primary objective is simple: to ensure that the voters of Florida are not disenfranchised,” Senate President John McKay said Wednesday as he announced that a special legislative session would begin at noon on Friday to consider appointing a slate of presidential electors. “It would be irresponsible of us if we failed to put a safety net in place under the current court conditions.”

House Speaker Tom Feeney argued the 6 million Sunshine State voters who went to the polls on Election Day would effectively be disenfranchised if Florida were unable to cast its decisive 25 votes in the Electoral College on Dec. 18.

“I find this a very solemn and important occasion,” said Feeney, a steadfast advocate of a special session. “I believe deeply … that we have a duty to protect Florida’s participation in the Electoral College.”

Both Feeney and McKay are Bush supporters and, given the solid Republican majorities in both bodies, there is little doubt as to which candidate electors appointed by the Legislature would support.

‘Postmark, Austin’ Say Dems

“The only thing missing … was the postmark from Austin, Texas,” said Democratic House Minority Leader Lois Frankel. “It is unreasonable and unfair to ask the Florida Legislature to become the political arm of the Bush campaign.”

When pressed by reporters on whether his efforts were coordinated with the Bush campaign, Speaker Feeney said: “I haven’t had any contact with any members of the Bush team probably since — in a good 24 hours. So, from my perspective, the actions we took … [were] without any advice or guidance or counsel or discussion with either campaign.”

Feeney subsequently declined to clarify his remarks, which suggested he had been in touch with the campaign at some point. But the Bush campaign, for its part, denied any coordination.

“There is not any coordination or directives from the Bush camp,” said Dan Bartlett, a spokesman for the Texas governor. “There is no … effort on our part telling them what to do or how to do it.”

Controlling Legal Authority?

At issue is a Dec. 12 deadline set by federal law for states to formally name their presidential electors. Title 3, Section 5 of the U.S. Code holds that those electors must be appointed “at least six days before the time fixed for the meeting of the electors,” which, in this election cycle, is Dec. 18.

With Bush having been certified as the victor in Florida’s election — an outcome the Gore campaign is asking the Florida Supreme Court to overturn — the state has already certified 25 electors pledged to vote for Bush.

Republican lawmakers now fear that slate of electors — which includes McKay and Feeney — could be “tainted” by past or future court rulings and rejected by Congress and say they must act to “protect” Florida’s electoral vote by, most likely, re-appointing that same slate of electors.

State Democrats call the action “unfair,” “unjust” and “illegal,” but their rivals across the aisle point to the U.S. Constitution, which holds, “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors.”

The Florida Supreme Court, this morning, heard oral arguments from the Bush and Gore legal teams on the vice president’s challenge to the state’s certified election results. Gore is asking the court — which has yet to decide whether it even has jurisdiction in the matter — to overturn a ruling by Leon County Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls rejecting his contest case and refusing to order a manual recount of some 14,000 disputed ballots from two heavily Democratic counties.

As four House members looked on from inside the chamber, Chief Justice Charles T. Wells appeared to affirm the Legislature’s authority during today’s proceedings.

“My reading … is that the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the state Legislature has plenary power — full power — in respect to appointment of presidential electors, and that power cannot be eroded,” Wells said.

Waiting in the Wings

Several legislators told ABCNEWS the proclamation convening the special session was meant as a warning shot across the bow of the judiciary — a signal to the high court that the legislative branch is watching and is prepared to act if the justices fail to resolve the election.

The Republican leaders said both houses would pass a resolution on Dec. 13 appointing the electors if the all of the election-related court cases are not completed by Dec. 12.

“If we find a way to do our duty without bringing the session to a close with a final vote,” added Feeney, “then I would be the most pleased man in Florida.”

If GOP lawmakers do decide to act, however, Democrats concede there is little they can do to stop them.

“We will, with every ounce that we have and every breath that we have, with strong and reasoned voices, try to convince our colleagues that it’s wrong,” said Frankel. “But, quite frankly, they have the votes.”