Top U.S. court halts Florida recount

Only hours after a hand recount of contested presidential ballots began in Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court cast votes of its own Saturday, narrowly ruling to stop the process.

In a 5-4 decision, the country's top judges ordered the recount suspended until they review the case on Monday.

But it was clear that the court is deeply fractured, with dissenting justices accusing the majority of acting "unwisely".

Justice John Paul Stevens, for example, argued that "counting every legally cast vote cannot constitute irreparable harm." He said stopping the process, on the other hand, "will inevitably cast a cloud on the legitimacy of the election."

In an unusual move, the majority responded to the dissenting justices directly. Antonin Scalia argued that the U.S. Supreme Court must issue a final ruling before the ballots are touched again.

"Count first, and rule upon legality afterwards, is not a recipe for producing election results that have the public acceptance democratic stability requires," Judge Scalia said.

On Monday, the nine justices will hear 90 minutes of oral arguments on whether the recount should go ahead.

Republican George W. Bush, hanging on to a slim lead and what he hopes are the keys to the White House, contends the recount is unnecessary, unwise, and unconstitutional.

Democrat Al Gore, who has inched closer to victory with almost every electronic and manual review of ballots in Florida over the past month, insists that the election will always be in doubt unless Americans are satisfied that every legally cast vote was counted.

Some legal experts are predicting that the conservative majority on the bench will eventually back Bush.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered the hand recount of more than 40,000 ballots on Friday.

On Saturday, an appeals court in Atlanta refused to grant the Bush team an emergency injunction. But the U.S. Supreme Court then issued its own order in the historic and seemingly endless dispute over votes.

The recount is considered Gore's last chance to become the 43rd President of the United States.

Nov. 7RecountCertifiedDec. 8 Ruling
Bush leadover Gore1,725930537154
Source: State of Florida

On Friday, the Florida court also ordered 383 votes added to Gore's total in the state 215 from Palm Beach County and 168 from Miami-Dade. That decision reduced Bush's lead to a mere 154 votes over Gore.

Immediately following the Florida decision, Bush's team filed a 41-page appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Republicans had asked three courts to impose an injunction and stop the recounts. Two of the courts, the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Appeals Court, turned Bush down Saturday afternoon.

On Friday, two lower courts in Florida turned down separate requests by Democrats to throw out thousands of absentee ballots.

Democratic supporters had wanted 25,000 absentee ballots thrown out in Martin and Seminole counties, claiming Republicans tampered with application forms and removed them from the elections supervisors' office.

The winner of the Florida vote receives 25 Electoral College votes. Neither Gore nor Bush can win the presidency without those votes.