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Friday, 1 December, 2000, 22:02 GMT
Eyewitness: Inside the Supreme Court
Courtroom sketch
Most Americans see only sketches of the court in session
By Washington Correspondent Paul Reynolds

With a sonorous "Oh Yea, Oh Yea, Oh Yea" from the marshal and a brisk "We'll hear arguments this morning on Number 00-836, George W Bush versus the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board" from Chief Justice Rehnquist, as if this was the most routine case in the world, they were off.

And it was non-stop for the next hour and a half, with the nine justices (or most of them) firing questions at the lawyers like the Inquisition.

From their polished wooden bench on a dais in front of four large, marble pillars, the justices peered out across the neo classical chamber designed like a Greek temple.

Crowded inside were the high and mighty of the Washington legal world, politicians from Congress across the road, about 100 reporters squashed to the side behind a double row of pillars draped with red velvet and even some members of the public, whose votes this was all about.

I could just see the justices on their bench and with a bit of leaning round one pillar caught occasional sight of the lawyers at their lectern.

Reporters who couldn't see at all were helped out by a friendly court official who numbered each justice and held up the relevant fingers when each spoke. She had her work cut out for her.

Title, chapter and verse
The US Constitution
You better bone up on the Constitution and US code, or you'll be lost

First up was George Bush's lawyer, Theodore (Ted) Olson, with grave voice and straight hair, a Republican veteran. Barely a minute had gone by before Justice Sandra Day O'Connor piled in. What about Title 3 Section 5? was the thrust of her question.

That is how the court - and many others like it - works. It is not interested in personalities or politics.

The court is interested only in law and that includes Title 3 Section 5. It has to do with the role of the states in appointing the members of the Electoral College.

It is those electors who actually pick the president. It is central to the arguments, and nobody seems to have a clear view of it.

And around this legalistic shorthand revolves the future of the US president.

Breaking through the legalese

Fortunately for the hard-pressed members of the press trying to keep up, liberal Justice Ruth Ginsburg was more down to earth. She appeared to side with the Florida Supreme Court.

"We owe the highest respect to a State Supreme Court when it says what state law is," she said.

Members of the public waited in a long line for a seat inside
Some camped outside the court in hopes of getting a seat inside

Mr Olson countered that this was "an unusual case". No-one disagreed with that.

Mr Gore's lawyer, Professor Laurence Tribe from Harvard University, champion of the Democratic cause, was given an equally hard time.

The conservative Justice Antonin Scalia said he had a "problem" with the Florida Court. It had to do with whether its decision was based on law or the Florida constitution.

Photo finish

Chief Justice Rehnquist weighed in. He said that Blacker was a strong argument that the Florida court couldn't rely on the constitution.

Blacker? I could feel worried rumblings on the press chairs. There certainly was on mine. Who was Blacker? It is the way of courts to mention old cases and try to catch lawyers out.

Frankly, I am not sure the lawyers knew either. Nobody picked up the reference to Blacker. He was quickly forgotten, except presumably by the Chief Justice.

Larry Tribe came up with one line that cheered us up. What was going on in Florida, he said, was like examining the film on a photo finish. Here was language we could understand.

Can one draw any conclusions? Not really. There was clearly scepticism among some of the justices about the need for them to intervene, yet enough questions were raised by others for there to be a debate when they discuss the issues in their conference chamber.

Despite its legal intensity, it was a fascinating hearing, one conducted with the solemnity that is a feature of the best courts around the world.

It was on a much higher level than the partisanship that has characterised this amazing period in American politics.

And best of all, I did not hear the names of George Bush and Al Gore mentioned once.

See also:

28 Nov 00 | Americas
Bush's cabinet in waiting
27 Nov 00 | Middle East
Gaddafi offers US election advice
01 Dec 00 | Americas
Q&A: US poll timetable
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