US asks: Where have all the wise men gone?

Analysis
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The Independent US

Katherine Harris, Florida's Republican Secretary of State, was under savage fire from senior Democrats yesterday for insisting that Florida's 67 counties must send in certified election results by 5pm today.

Katherine Harris, Florida's Republican Secretary of State, was under savage fire from senior Democrats yesterday for insisting that Florida's 67 counties must send in certified election results by 5pm today.

The complaints against her underline how - in America's system of devolved democracy and in an election as agonisingly close as this one - no one can be counted impartial, even in a court system that is supposed to be the referee.

"Are there any wise men left in America?" a headline in USA Today asked yesterday. Similar sentiments can be heard from constitutional scholars and other worthies on the talk shows: surely there is someone who is truly neutral and can step down from the imaginary Mount Olympus to pronounce on the matter.

But who?Names mentioned so far are mostly of the dead: the former Presidential aide, Clark Clifford; the legendary Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter. Of those still of this earth, there is Walter Cronkite, the retired CBS news anchor, once voted "the most trusted man in America".

The reality, however, is that almost no one is supra partes. Some have suggested that ex-Presidents, who have at least undergone this ordeal, might fit the bill. At a White House dinner last Friday commemorating the 200th birthday of the building that symbolises American democracy, the Republican Gerald Ford and the Democrat Jimmy Carter seemed statesmanlike and above the fray.

So why not a ballot of ex-Presidents? The problem is that, given Ronald Reagan's debilitating illness, the third ex-President, George Bush Sr, would have the deciding vote. Unfortunately, Mr Bush just happens to be the father of one of the candidates. Almost everyone else is parti pris in this partisan America where so many legal offices, as well as political ones, are decided by election.

"Elect X for county sheriff", election posters in every front garden have proclaimed around the country. But Florida shows in an extreme instance that a sheriff or other locally elected official identified with one or other party might make decisions that could determine the presidency.

And so it has proved. Ms Harris is an elected Republican and closely aligned with Florida's Republican Governor, Jeb Bush, the brother of the Republican candidate George W.

All may not be lost for the Democrats, however. Yesterday the Palm Beach County canvassing board voted to seek a legal opinion from Florida's attorney general, who is also an elected official - except that he's a Democrat.

Or take Donald Middlebrooks, the Miami federal judge who decided yesterday that the manual recounts in Palm Beach and elsewhere could go ahead. Like all of his kind, he is a presidential appointee, named to the bench in 1997 by Bill Clinton. His record proves he is fair-minded and independent. But the suspicion will persist among Republicans that they are victims of a political conspiracy.

If the dispute ends in the US Supreme Court - and few would bet against it - politics would probably intervene there too. The speedy judgment required (this ruling cannot be put on the Justices' docket to await stately deliberation some time next year) would be made on the basis of who is right - Republican lawyers or Democrat lawyers?

So which way would the country's highest court go? Given the prevailing, though narrow, conservative majority, the best guess is that if push came to shove, it would side with the Bush camp. The real tragedy is that, while any ruling would almost certainly be confined to the judicial merits of the case, many Democrats or many Republicans would go to their graves believing it was a political fix if the verdict went against them.

America's problem is that it is a republic and a federation of 50 states. But would pragmatic, highly centralised Britain - whose highest legal officers are technically appointments of the Crown, and which is without the burden of a written constitution - fare much better?

Faced with such an impasse, it is unlikely that the Queen would summon anyone to Buckingham Palace to form a government any time soon.

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