Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Bd.
531 U.S. 70 (2000)

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OCTOBER TERM, 2000

Syllabus

BUSH v. PALM BEACH COUNTY CANVASSING BOARD ETAL.

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA

No. 00-836. Argued December 1, 2000-Decided December 4, 2000

The day after the November 7, 2000, Presidential election, the Florida Division of Elections reported that petitioner, Governor George W. Bush, had received 1,784 more votes than respondent Vice President Albert Gore, Jr. Under the Florida Election Code, an automatic machine recount occurred, resulting in a much smaller margin of victory for Bush. Gore then exercised his statutory right to submit written requests for manual recounts to the canvassing boards of four Florida counties, see Fla. Stat. § 102.166, and subsequently joined in this suit to require manual recounts and the certification of the recount results. Among other things, the Florida Circuit Court held that § 102.111's 7-day recount deadline was mandatory, but that the Volusia County board could amend its returns at a later date, and ruled that the Secretary of State (Secretary), after considering all attendant facts and circumstances, could exercise her discretion in deciding whether to include the late amended returns in the statewide certification. Mter the Secretary rejected the four counties' requests to make late filings, the Circuit Court denied an emergency motion by the Florida Democratic Party and Gore, ruling that the Secretary had not acted arbitrarily and had exercised her discretion in a reasonable manner consistent with the court's earlier ruling. The First District Court of Appeal certified the matter to the Florida Supreme Court, which, inter alia, enjoined the Secretary and the Elections Canvassing Commission from certifying the election results and declaring a winner until further order; held that a discrepancy between the machine returns and a sample manual recount was sufficient to trigger the statutory provisions for a full manual recount; and ruled that § 102.112, which provides that the Secretary "may ... ignor[e]" late election returns, controlled over the conflicting provision in § 102.111, which specifies that the Secretary "shall ... ignor[e]" such returns. Relying in part on the right to vote set forth in the State Constitution, the court concluded that the Secretary may reject late manual recounts only under limited circumstances. Invoking its equitable powers, the court imposed a November 26 deadline for a return of ballot counts, thereby effectively extending by 12 days § 102.111's 7-day deadline, and directed the Secretary to accept manual counts submitted prior to that deadline.


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Held: In light of considerable uncertainty as to the precise grounds for decision, the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court is vacated, and the case is remanded. This Court generally defers to a state court's interpretation of a state statute. But in the case of a state law applicable not only to elections to state offices, but also to the selection of Presidential electors, the state legislature is not acting solely under the authority given it by the State, but by virtue of a direct grant of authority under Art. II, § 1, cl. 2, of the United States Constitution, which requires each State to appoint its electors "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." Insertion of those words into that Clause, while operating as a limitation upon the State in respect of any attempt to circumscribe the legislative power, cannot be held to operate as a limitation on that power itself. McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U. S. 1, 25. Review of the opinion below reveals considerable uncertainty as to the precise grounds for the decision. See Minnesota v. National Tea Co., 309 U. S. 551, 555. Specifically, this Court is unclear both as to the extent to which the Florida Supreme Court saw the Florida Constitution as circumscribing the legislature's authority under Art. II, § 1, cl. 2, and as to the consideration the Florida court accorded to 3 U. S. C. § 5, which contains a federal-law principle that would assure finality of the State's determination if made pursuant to a state law in effect before the election. That is sufficient reason for this Court to decline at this time to review the federal questions asserted to be present. See 309 U. S., at 555. While state courts must be free to interpret their state constitutions, it is equally important that ambiguous or obscure statecourt adjudications not stand as barriers to a determination by this Court of the validity of state action under the Federal Constitution. Intelligent exercise of the Court's appellate powers compels it to ask for the elimination of the obscurities and ambiguities from the opinions in such cases. Id., at 557.

772 So. 2d 1220, vacated and remanded.

Theodore B. Olson argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Terence P. Ross, Douglas R. Cox, Thomas G. Hungar, Mark A. Perry, Benjamin L. Ginsberg, Michael A. Carvin, Barry Richard, John F. Manning, William K. Kelley, Bradford R. Clark, George J. Terwilliger III, Timothy E. Flanigan, and Marcos D. Jimenez. Joseph P. Klock, Jr., argued the cause for Katherine Harris et al., respondents under this Court's Rule 12.6, in support of peti-


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