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Monday, 11 December, 2000, 20:44 GMT
Analysis: The legal battles

Judges in Broward county scrutinise chad
The legal battle likely to determine the outcome of the United States presidential election appears to have come to a close.

The US Supreme Court accepted written briefs from lawyers for Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W Bush on Sunday, and heard 90 minutes of oral argument from them on Monday.

The judgment on Tuesday reverses the Florida Supreme Court's ruling which allowed hand recounts to proceed.

Mr Gore's hopes of being elected rested entirely on the recounts going ahead.

BBC News Online explains the legal web that surrounds the battle for the US presidency.

Democratic challenges

The Florida Supreme Court backed Mr Gore's demand for hand counts of disputed ballots on Friday, but only by the narrowest of margins - four to three.

It is that Florida ruling that the US Supreme Court put on hold until it ruled.

Democrats believe counting the thousands of disputed papers in Florida would have revealed extra votes for Mr Gore, as many "dimpled chads" - those not cleanly punched through - will be in his favour in heavily Democratic areas.

The Florida high court decision was Mr Gore's first victory after a run of defeats:

  • On Tuesday Florida Supreme Court judges upheld rulings by judges in Seminole and Martin counties to throw out Democrat attempts to discount thousands of allegedly irregular absentee ballots which they believed favoured the Republicans.

  • Florida Circuit Court Judge Sanders Sauls comprehensively rejected Mr Gore's appeal for hand recounts.

  • The US Supreme Court ordered Florida judges to explain their earlier ruling to allow hand recounts - seen as a sign they were not happy with the decision.

In a separate case still under way in Nassau county, the Democrats are challenging the make-up of the canvassing board. They say one member was inexplicably replaced by a Republican, who was ineligible to serve.

They are also contesting the board's subsequent decision to discard results that had been previously certified on the machine recount. Using the recount would give Mr Gore 51 more votes.

Republican challenges

The Republicans hoped the US's highest court - the Federal Supreme Court in Washington - would rule that recounts in Florida were not valid.

There were indications that the court was sympathetic to the Republican position - a statement issued by Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday said the court would not have acted to stop the recount unless it saw "substantial probability" that it would rule in Mr Bush's favour.

And in an earlier ruling, the court asked the Florida judges to explain their November decision to permit late-counted votes into the state's official tally.

But this was not the only Republican challenge still under way.

  • The Bush campaign has also filed state lawsuits in several Florida counties, charging that their canvassing boards improperly rejected several overseas absentee ballots, including those that were not dated or postmarked.

  • Shortly before the US Supreme Court halted the recounts on Saturday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that recounts should go ahead but should not be considered valid until the Supreme Court ruled - a decision superseded by the Washington court's move.

Key dates

There are some crucial dates looming, which limit how long the legal challenges could continue.

On 18 December, the electoral colleges across the US meet to vote.

On 6 January, Congress counts electoral college votes. If there is no winner, the House of Representatives chooses the president and the Senate chooses the vice-president.

The next important date is the inauguration of the 43rd president of the United States, scheduled for 20 January 2001.

If the electoral system fails to produce a president by then, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Dennis Hastert, becomes acting president. The House of Representatives will then vote on who will assume the presidency.

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