Today's Papers

Leon Is Getting Larger

Everybody leads with the first day of the Leon County Circuit Court trial in the Florida election contest. Lawyers for Al Gore are asking a judge to review more than 13,000 disputed ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, while lawyers for George W. Bush want the judge to declare that Bush’s 537-vote Florida victory is final. Gore’s lawyers hoped the trial would last only one day, but after nine hours the judge added a second day of testimony to begin at 9 a.m. ET today. The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post emphasize the fact that the trial is a historic first. The LAT calls it an “unprecedented lawsuit,” and the WP notes that it’s “the nation’s first trial to decide the outcome of a presidential election.” The New York Times, on the other hand, zeroes in on the trial’s potential as a historic last: After this trial, our long national recount may be over. Still, the NYT does note that the trial is as much a beginning as an end–the results will surely be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gore, of course, wants the judge to do more than just manually recount the ballots. He wants the judge to count them using a standard that makes a Gore presidency more likely. And if Bush is forced to accept a recount of the disputed ballots, he wants the judge to use a standard that makes President W. all but a certainty. So the trial consisted of what the NYT calls a “bitter and minutely detailed argument over the mechanics of punch-card voting.” The Gore team called two experts–one to argue that an indented chad should be treated like a fully punched hole and one to testify that there was a higher percentage of “undervotes” in counties that used punch-card machines than in counties that used optical readers. The Bush team opened their case with the Palm Beach County canvassing board chief, who testified about the Palm Beach board’s lengthy deliberations when examining ballots. The Bush team argues that election officials must have engaged in serious misconduct for Gore to win another recount. 

The papers suggest the trial is going well for Bush. The NYT calls the extra day a “serious setback” for Gore, and the WP and NYT both note that the judge called the Bush witness “a great American.” The WP adds that during Gore’s dimpled-chad witness, “the normally attentive judge often took off his glasses, pinched his brow, stared at the clock or rocked back and forth in his chair while looking up at the ceiling.”

The LAT reports that Bush attorneys made two new requests Saturday. They want 770,000 ballots in Broward and Volusia counties to be included in any recounts, and they want the judge to certify Seminole County’s 15,000 absentee ballots as “legal and proper.” That would negate a lawsuit that seeks to throw out those ballots because an election official allowed the GOP to fill in missing voter identification numbers on Republican ballot requests.

In case you missed it, the recount semicrisis was argued before another court on Friday. Both the NYT and LAT front stories that suggest the U.S. Supreme Court may decide not to address the merits of Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board rather than hand down the divided 5-4 ruling that many legal experts expect. The LAT piece has a terrific lead: “Whenever Vice President Al Gore sought to scare liberal Democratic audiences along the campaign trail, he would invoke the specter of an aggressively conservative Supreme Court led by Justice Antonin Scalia. Now, Gore himself is facing just that prospect.” Scalia devised the theory–seemingly accepted by five justices on the court–that Article II of the Constitution grants state legislatures complete power to set rules for selecting presidential electors, the LAT reports. The court may avoid endorsing that theory, however, because it would mean that Americans do not have a constitutional right to vote for president.

In the “grass-is-often-browner-on-the-other-side-if-in-fact-there’s-any-grass-at-all” category, the NYT fronts a report from Russia, where life expectancy has fallen to 65.9 years. Since 1990, the country’s death rate has risen one-third, and the birth rate has dropped 40 percent. The United Nations estimates that Russia’s population could shrink from 145.6 million to 121 million by 2050. Russian life expectancy peaked in 1965 at 68.8 years and, almost without exception, has been falling since. Russia does lead the world in one health indicator: The average citizen drinks 4.4 gallons of alcohol per year.

Journalistic Laff-a-Lympics. The papers engage in a cleverness contest. In a front-pager on eToys, the WP uses the word “pornucopia” to describe perceptions of the early Web. The LAT fronts a story on D.C.’s problems with planning a January inauguration for a nonexistent president-elect and headlines it “CITY HELD HOSTAGE BY SINGLE PARTY SYSTEM.” And the NYT puts this notice on its corrections page: “An interview transcript in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Bernard Shaw, the CNN anchor, misspelled the brand name of the gin in a martini he savored the day after the election. It is Bombay Sapphire, named for the gemstone. (Safire, also a refreshing spirit, was the author of the column five pages later.)” Has the NYT’s Weather Poet  been reassigned?