Legal battle lines are a little clearer, but the result is still anybody's guess

The Lawsuits
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The Independent US

With the rival camps virtually unable to talk to each other, and public patience still remarkably intact, the outcome of the nine-day-old Florida manual ballot dispute seemed more likely than ever yesterday to be resolved through the courts.

With the rival camps virtually unable to talk to each other, and public patience still remarkably intact, the outcome of the nine-day-old Florida manual ballot dispute seemed more likely than ever yesterday to be resolved through the courts.

And if that outcome is still anyone's guess, at least the contours of the legal struggle, conducted by some of the country's most celebrated attorneys, have become a little clearer.

As so often in the United States, two separate court systems are involved. One is that of Florida state, a ladder of local, circuit and appeals courts culminating in the supreme court. The other consists of federal courts, first at a district level, then appellate, and finally the US Supreme Court itself in Washington.

Technically elections, even a presidential election, are supervised by individual states, and federal courts would normally be loath to intervene unless the dispute had implications for the federal constitution - which this particular one does not seem to.

But federal courts are usually perceived as having more authority than those of states, and their involvement this time was virtually inevitable.

The main legal battles yesterday were as follows:

* Having lost a first round in two Florida federal district courts, the Republicans have appealed to the 11th US circuit court of appeals in Atlanta to halt manual recounts. The court has agreed to hear the appeal before all 12 judges instead of the usual panel of three. The hearing could be held today. The loser will probably take the case to the US Supreme Court.

* The Democrats are challenging Wednesday's decision by Katherine Harris, Secretary of State of Florida, not to accept hand-count tallies for the final result of the election that she plans to announce tomorrow, once absentee votes are in and counted. They want the Leon County circuit judge Terry Lewis to enforce his ruling that Ms Harris cannot act in an arbitrary manner. That lawsuit, which could have more impact on events than any other, was being heard yesterday.

* Palm Beach County and Broward County, which are either planning recounts or have already started them, are waiting for a ruling from the seven-member state supreme court on the conflicting advice they have received from Ms Harris and Florida's attorney general on whether they can continue manual recounts.

* Numerous Palm Beach County voters, in a combined lawsuit, say they were disenfranchised by the infamous "butterfly ballot" and have asked for a countywide revote. A local judge, Jorge Labarga, has asked for a precedent, and has set a hearing for today.

* In a separate ruling, Judge Labarga has decided that Palm Beach County's own canvassing board, which handled the election there, should consider the semi-punched dimpled ballots (or "pregnant chads") on a case-by-case basis, whether it could determine the intention of each voter.

* The NAACP civil rights group and other black leaders have asked the US Attorney General, Janet Reno, to examine allegations of discrimination against black voters in some Florida counties.

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