Justices defend Supreme Court's handling of election

Thursday, March 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Two Supreme Court justices defended the court's involvement in the Florida election case that handed the presidency to George W. Bush.

``It was our responsibility to take the case,'' Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told a congressional panel on Thursday.

Justice Clarence Thomas added that in almost a decade on the court, ``I have yet to hear the first political conversation, and I heard none'' during the Bush v. Gore case.

``I was only interested in discharging my responsibility as opposed to avoiding it and playing it safe,'' Thomas said.

The two justices appeared before a House subcommittee to present the court's proposed budget. During questioning by panel members, Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., told them the court ``broke my heart by getting involved with a political decision'' in the election case.

The justices' bitterly divided 5-4 ruling on Dec. 12 halted the Florida recount sought by Al Gore, who conceded the election the following day. Before the court got involved, many legal observers had thought it would stay out and leave the dispute to the political process.

Kennedy and Thomas voted with the majority that varying recount standards violated voters' equal protection rights, but that there was no time to begin a new count.

Serrano said his constituents were ``angry, bitter, disenchanted with the whole process'' and asked, ``Is there any way that we could join together to make sure that people don't feel left out ever again?''

Kennedy said the nation's highest court has ``a language, an ethic, a discipline ... that's different from the political branch.'' The court builds a reservoir of trust with the public over the years, and it ``draws down'' on that trust when it makes difficult decisions, he added.

``This was not the most difficult decision that the court has made, for many of us,'' Kennedy said.

The justice said he hoped that in coming years people will understand that the election case ``was in the courts, we did not bring it there, that it involved a constitutional issue of the gravest importance.''

``Sometimes it is easy to enhance your prestige by not exercising your responsibility, but that has not been the tradition of our court,'' Kennedy added.

Thomas said he is not interested in being involved with politics and that ``if there was a way, and I speak only for myself, to have avoided getting involved in that difficult decision ... I would have done it.''

He said the justices were sworn to decide cases honestly and that in the election case ``we each ... lived up to our respective oaths.''