WASHINGTON, Dec. 12, 2000 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court said 5-4 Tuesday it was reversing the ruling of the Florida Supreme Court allowing hand recount of votes in Florida, in effect ensuring that Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush will be the next president of the United States.
The ruling also dashed the hopes of Democratic Vice President Al Gore, who hoped the hand recounts would erase Bush's razor-thin lead in the state's popular vote. Whoever wins Florida's 25 electoral votes would have a majority of electoral votes needed to claim the White House when members of the Electoral College vote next Monday.
It was the first time in the nation's history that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling directly determined the outcome of a presidential election.
Though the decision sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court for another ruling at that level, the unsigned opinion left no room for the recount to continue, making clear that Tuesday was the deadline for the contest to end.
The unsigned "per curiam" opinion came down hard on the varying ways in which the recount was being conducted by the different Florida counties -- some counting "dimpled" punch-card ballots, some not -- which the majority said violated the due process and equal protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.
"Upon due consideration of the difficulties identified to this point, it is obvious that the recount cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirements of equal protection and due process without substantial additional work," the opinion said. New software and equipment to meet those constitutional requirements "would have to be evaluated for accuracy by the secretary of state," Republican Katherine Harris, the opinion said.
Federal law requires "that any controversy or contest that is designed to lead to a conclusive selection of electors be completed by Dec. 12," the opinion said. "Because it is evident that any recount seeking to meet the Dec. 12 date (Tuesday) will be unconstitutional...we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering a recount to proceed."
The opinion went on to say that seven of the nine justices "agree that there a constitutional problems with the recount ordered (by the state court)...The only disagreement is as to the remedy."
Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote a separate opinion concurring in the judgment.
Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, joined by fellow liberals, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Stevens said the majority opinion questioning the wisdom and expertise of the Florida Supreme Court "can only lend credence to the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land."
Justice David Souter also dissented, joined by Breyer. Ginsburg and Stevens also joined most of his dissent.
"If this (Supreme) Court had allowed the state to follow the course indicated by the opinions of its own supreme court," Souter said, "it is entirely possible that there would ultimately have been no issue requiring our review, and political tension could have worked itself out in the Congress following the procedure provided (in federal law)."
A statute in the federal code, 3 U.S.C. section 15, allows challenges to a state's electors if they are not certified by a certain date following the election -- Dec. 12, or Tuesday, this year.
Ginsburg and Breyer also dissented separately, joined in whole or in part by the other justices.
"Ideally, perfection would be the appropriate standard for judging the recount," Ginsburg said. "But we live in an imperfect world, one in thousands of votes have not been counted."
Breyer was equally dismayed.
"The political implications of this case for the country are momentous," he wrote. "But the federal legal questions, with one exception, are insubstantial." Breyer said it would have been better for Florida to have one uniform statewide standard for the recounts.
The U.S. Supreme Court acted in a challenge brought by Bush and his campaign after the Florida Supreme Court ordered the hand recounts of about 60,000 "undercounted" votes in the state.
"Undercounted" votes, mostly punch-card ballots, recorded no vote for president when tallied by a machine. Democrats contended that if they were hand counted, they would reveal thousands of votes.
The U.S. Supreme Court halted the hand count in an order Saturday, then heard argument Monday, ruling a day later.
When the news of the high court's action began to sink in, Capitol Hill became thronged with cars driven by Bush supporters honking their horns in celebration.
The nation's presidential election was over, more than a month after the votes were cast.