Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

THE "GORE EXCEPTION": A Layman's Guide to The Supreme Court Decision in Bush v. Gore


Monday, Dec. 18, 2000

Mr. Levine's witty, trenchant "Q&A" e-mail about the Supreme Court's most recent Bush v. Gore decision - which, in effect, decided the Presidential election - has been swiftly making the rounds on the Internet. Mr. Levine reports that he has a habit of sending off political emails to close friends and family on a variety of topics, and that this one, unlike the others, apparently struck a chord. He has received literally thousands of emails from more than 40 states and several foreign countries responding to the Q&A e-mail, more than 90% of them positive. With permission from Mr. Levine, we reproduce the Q&A here. - Ed.

Q: I'm not a lawyer and I don't understand the recent Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore. Can you explain it to me?

A: Sure. I'm a lawyer. I read it. It says Bush wins, even if Gore got the most votes.

Q: But wait a second. The U.S. Supreme Court has to give a reason, right?

A: Right.

Q: So Bush wins because hand-counts are illegal?

A: Oh no. Six of the justices (a two-thirds majority) believed the hand-counts were legal and should be done.

Q: Oh. So the justices did not believe that the hand-counts would find any legal ballots?

Q: Oh. Does this have something to do with states' rights? Don't conservatives love that?

A: Yes. These five justices have held that the federal government has no business telling a sovereign state university it can't steal trade secrets just because such stealing is prohibited by law. Nor does the federal government have any business telling a state that it should bar guns in schools. Nor can the federal government use the equal protection clause to force states to take measures to stop violence against women.

Q: Is there an exception in this case?

A: Yes, the "Gore exception." States have no rights to control their own state elections when it can result in Gore being elected President. This decision is limited to only this situation.

Q: C'mon. The Supremes didn't really say that. You're exaggerating.

A: Nope. They held "Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, as the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities."

Q: What complexities?

A: They didn't say.

Q: I'll bet I know the reason. I heard Jim Baker say this. The votes can't be counted because the Florida Supreme Court "changed the rules of the election after it was held." Right?

Q: Huh?

A: The Legislature declared that the only legal standard for counting vote is "clear intent of the voter." The Florida Court was condemned for not adopting a clearer standard.

Q: I thought the Florida Court was not allowed to change the Legislature's law after the election.

A: Right.

Q: So what's the problem?

A: They should have. The U.S. Supreme Court said the Florida Supreme Court should have "adopt[ed] adequate statewide standards for determining what is a legal vote"

Q: I thought only the Legislature could "adopt" new law.

A: Right.

Q: So if the Florida Supreme Court had adopted new standards, I thought it would have been overturned.

Q: If the Florida Supreme Court had adopted new standards, it would have been overturned for changing the rules. And if it didn't, it's overturned for not changing the rules? That means that no matter what the Florida Supreme Court did, legal votes could never be counted if they would end up with a possible Gore victory.

A: Right. Next question.

Q: Wait, wait. I thought the problem was "equal protection," that some counties counted votes differently from others. Isn't that a problem?

A: It sure is. Across the nation, we vote in a hodgepodge of systems. Some, like the optical-scanners in largely Republican-leaning counties record 99.7% of the votes. Some, like the punchcard systems in largely Democratic-leaning counties record only 97% of the votes. So approximately 3% of Democratic-leaning votes are thrown in the trash can.

Q: Aha! That's a severe equal-protection problem!!!

A: No it's not. The Supreme Court wasn't worried about the 3% of Democratic-leaning ballots thrown in the trashcan in Florida. That "complexity" was not a problem.

Q: Was it the butterfly ballots that violated Florida law and tricked more than 20,000 Democrats to vote for Buchanan or both Gore and Buchanan?

A: Nope. The Supreme Court has no problem believing that Buchanan got his highest, best support in a precinct consisting of a Jewish old age home with Holocaust survivors, who apparently have changed their mind about Hitler.

Q: Yikes. So what was the serious equal protection problem?

Q: A single judge? I thought the standards were different. I thought that was the whole point of the Supreme Court opinion.

A: Judge Terry Lewis, who received the case upon remand from the Florida Supreme Court, had already ordered each of the counties to fax him their standards so he could be sure they were uniform when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped him from counting the uncounted votes (favoring Gore). Republican activists did their best to send junk faxes to Lewis in order to prevent him from standardizing the process in a way that could justify the vote counting. They succeeded.

Q: Hmmm. Well, even if those .005% of difficult-to-tell votes are thrown out, you can still count the votes where everyone, even Republicans, agrees the voter's intent is clear, right?

A: Nope.

Q: Why not?

A: No time.

Q: I thought the Supreme Court said that the Constitution was more important than speed.

A: It did. It said, "The press of time does not diminish the constitutional concern. A desire for speed is not a general excuse for ignoring equal protection guarantees."

Q: Well that makes sense. So there's time to count the votes when the intent is clear and everyone is treated equally then. Right?

Q: But they just said that the constitution is more important than time!

A: You forget. There is the "Gore exception."

Q: No time to count legal votes where everyone, even Republicans, agree the intent is clear? Why not?

A: Because the day of December 12 had almost passed when the U.S. Supreme Court decision was handed down.

Q: Is December 12 a deadline for counting votes?

A: No. January 6, 2001 is the deadline. In the Election of 1960, Hawaii's votes weren't counted until January 4, 1961.

Q: So why is December 12 important?

A: December 12 is a deadline by which Congress can't challenge the results.

Q: What does the Congressional role have to do with the Supreme Court?

Q: But I thought ---

A: The Florida Supreme Court had earlier held it would like to complete its work by December 12 to make things easier for Congress. The United States Supreme Court is trying to "help" the Florida Supreme Court out by forcing the Florida court to abide by a deadline that everyone agrees is not binding.

Q: But I thought the Florida Court was going to just barely have the votes counted by December 12.

A: They would have made it, but the five conservative justices stopped the recount last Saturday.

Q: Why?

A: Justice Scalia said some of the counts may not be legal.

Q: So why not separate the votes into piles — indentations for Gore, hanging chads for Bush, votes that everyone agrees went to one candidate or the other — so that we know exactly how Florida voted before determining who won? Then, if some ballots (say, indentations) have to be thrown out, the American people will know right away who won Florida?

A. Great idea! An intelligent, rational solution to a difficult problem! The U.S. Supreme Court rejected it. (Gore exception) They held that such counts would be likely to produce election results showing Gore won and Gore's winning would cause "public acceptance" and that would "cast[] a cloud" over Bush's "legitimacy" that would harm "democratic stability."

Q: In other words, if America knows the truth that Gore won, they won't accept the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Gore's victory?

Q: Is that a legal reason to stop recounts? Or a political one?

A: Let's just say in all of American history and all of American law, this reason has no basis in law. But that didn't stop the five conservatives from creating new law out of thin air.

Q: Aren't these conservative justices against judicial activism?

A: Yes, when liberal judges are perceived to have done it.

Q: Well, if the December 12 deadline is not binding, why not count the votes afterward?

A: The U.S. Supreme Court, after admitting the December 12 deadline is not binding, set December 12 as a binding deadline at 10 p.m. on December 12.

Q: Didn't the U.S. Supreme Court condemn the Florida Supreme Court for arbitrarily setting a deadline?

A: Yes.

Q: But, but --

Q: So who caused Florida to miss the December 12 deadline?

A: The Bush lawyers who, before Gore filed a single lawsuit, went to court to stop the recount; the rent-a-mob in Miami that got paid Florida vacations for intimidating officials; the constant request for delay by Bush lawyers in Florida courts; and, primarily, the U.S. Supreme Court, which both refused to consider Bush's equal protection argument on November 22, 2000 (when the Florida Supreme Court still had time to rectify the count with a uniform standard), then stopped the recount entirely on December 9 (which would have been completed by December 12), and then complained there was no time on December 12 at 10 p.m. to count the votes before midnight.

Q: So who is punished for this behavior?

A: Gore, of course.

Q: Tell me this, are Florida's election laws unconstitutional?

A: Yes, according to the Supreme Court.

Q: And the laws of 50 states that allow votes to be cast or counted differently are unconstitutional?

A: Yes, according to the logic of the Supreme Court opinion. And 33 states have the same "clear intent of the voter" standard that the U.S. Supreme Court found was illegal in Florida

Q: Then why aren't the results of 33 states thrown out?

Q: But if Florida's certification includes counts expressly declared by the U.S. Supreme Court to be unconstitutional, we don't know who really won the election there, right?

A: Right. But a careful analysis by the Miami Herald shows Gore won Florida by about 23,000 votes (excluding the butterfly ballot errors). See

Q: So, what do we do, have a re-vote? Throw out the entire state? Count under a single uniform standard?

A: No. We just don't count the votes that favor Gore.

Q: That's completely bizarre! That sounds like rank political favoritism! Did the justices have any financial interest in the case?

A: Scalia's two sons are both lawyers at law firms working for Bush. Thomas's wife is collecting applications for people who want to work in the Bush administration.

Q: Why didn't they recuse themselves?

A: If either had recused himself, the vote would have been 4-4, and the Florida Supreme Court decision allowing recounts would have been affirmed.

Q: I can't believe the justices acted in such a blatantly political way.

(December 9 stay stopping the recount)

(December 12 opinion)

Q: So what are the consequences of this?

A: The guy who got the most votes in the U.S. and in Florida and under our Constitution (Al Gore) will lose to America's second choice (George W. Bush) who won the all important 5-4 Supreme Court vote, which trumps America's choice

Q: I thought in a democracy, the guy with the most votes wins. At least in the electoral college, shouldn't the guy with the most votes in Florida win?

A: That's true, in a democracy. But America in 2000 is no longer a democracy. In America in 2000, the guy with the most U.S. Supreme Court votes wins. That's why we don't need to count the People's votes in Florida.

Q: So what will happen to the Supreme Court when Bush becomes President?

Q: Is there any way to stop this?

A: YES. No federal judge can be confirmed without a vote in the Senate. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. If only 41 of the 50 Democratic Senators stand up to Bush and his Supremes and say that they will not approve a single judge appointed by him until a President can be democratically elected in 2004, the judicial reign of terror can end.and one day we can hope to return to the rule of law and the will of the people.

Q: What do I do now?

A: Email this to everyone you know, and write or call your Senator, reminding him or her that Gore beat Bush by several hundred thousand votes (three times Kennedy's margin over Nixon) and that you believe that VOTERS rather than JUDGES should determine who wins an election by counting every vote. And to protect our judiciary from overturning the will of the people, you want them to confirm NO NEW JUDGES APPOINTED BY A NON-DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED PRESIDENT until 2004 when a president is finally chosen by the American people, instead of Antonin Scalia.


Q: Isn't anyone on the US Supreme Court a rational follower of the rule of law?

A: Yes. Read the four dissents. Excerpts below:

Justice John Paul Stevens (Republican appointed by Ford):

"Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."

"Before this Court stayed the effort to [manually recount the ballots] the courts of Florida were ready to do their best to get that job done. There is no justification for denying the State the opportunity to try to count all the disputed ballots now."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Democrat appointed by Clinton):

Chief Justice Rehnquist would "disrupt" Florida's "republican regime." [In other words, democracy in Florida is imperiled.] The court should not let its "untested prophecy" that counting votes is "impractical" "decide the presidency of the United States."

Justice Stephen Breyer (Democrat appointed by Clinton):

"There is no justification for the majority's remedy . . . ." We "risk a self-inflicted wound -- a wound that may harm not just the court, but the nation."

Mark H. Levine, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, practices law in Los Angeles. On Election Day, he served as an elections attorney on behalf of voters turned away at the polls to help them resolve the problems so they could legally vote. His e-mail address is (Mr. Levine requests, however, that he only be contacted if you wish to publish the piece, interview him, or if it's "really, really important.")

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard