They Who Must Decide: The Florida Supreme Court

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Mark Foley/AP POOL/AFP

The members of the Florida Supreme Court

Once again, the presidential battle between George W. Bush and Al Gore has reached the Florida Supreme Court. Two and a half weeks ago, the seven justices allowed extra time to recount ballots in three Florida counties, a recount that was only partially fulfilled. Now they must decide whether a Gore suit to require that all the disputed ballots be counted — an action that was rebuffed by Judge N. Sanders Sauls in Leon County circuit court last week — is valid, a decision that could once again tip the election in favor of the vice president. Democrats, having been (mostly) at the favorable end of the court's earlier decision — and aware that the justices are, with one exception, all Democrat appointees — are hopeful that they will once prevail.

But before anyone gets too excited over at the Gore camp, there are a few things to know about the current bench on the Florida state Supreme Court. First off, Florida doesn't follow a blanket "appointment" routine; when a seat is empty, a nonpartisan judicial nominating committee consisting of interested citizens, gubernatorial appointees and attorneys presents three judges' names to the governor, who chooses one. In other words, a governor's appointments are more or less at the mercy of that independent committee. And while its Democratic makeup and what its reputation for what conservatives call "judicial activism" may make the Court look liberal on paper, these Justices are no bleeding hearts.

"None of these Justices go onto the bench as Democrats or Republicans. Of course some are more liberal than others, and some are more conservative," says Professor Terrence Anderson of the University of Miami law school. "But on an issue like [the Florida election] I would be very surprised if you could detect a bias." Jon Mills, interim dean of the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida, agrees. "This is not a partisan court," he insists.

Who They Are: Florida's Supreme Court Justices

Chief Justice Charles T. Wells Appointed to the court by the late Democratic governor Lawton Chiles in 1994. Considered a moderate by court-watchers. Came under fire, along with Justice Harding (see below), for communicating in secret with Republican lawmakers during a legislative debate over the death penalty.

Justice Henry Lee Anstead Appointed by Lawton Chiles in 1994. Characterized as an extremely bright judge who is not opposed to taking risks.

Justice Major B. HardingAppointed by Lawton Chiles in 1991. Perhaps the most conservative-leaning of the group.

Justice R. Fred Lewis Appointed by Lawton Chiles in 1998. Too recent an addition to generate any substantial buzz.

Justice Barbara J. Pariente Appointed by Lawton Chiles in 1997. Very smart, progressive-leaning judge.

Justice Peggy A. Quince Appointed by Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush in 1998. Too recent an addition to generate any substantial buzz.

Justice Leander J. Shaw Appointed by Democratic governor Bob Graham in 1983. Served as Chief Justice from 1990 to 1992: Considered the most progressive member of the Court. Came under fire from anti-abortion groups when the Court overturned a parental consent law in 1989.