Ted Olson Argued Bush v. Gore. Before Another Possibly Contested Election, Here Are 7 of His Winning TacticsBreaking News
tags: Florida, 2020 Election, 2000 election, Bush v. Gore
Barbara A. Perry is Gerald L. Baliles Professor and Presidential Studies director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
In the plethora of challenges to state election procedures making their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the specter of Bush v. Gore haunts the judicial landscape. The litigation over Florida’s determinative 2000 vote count resulted in two oral arguments before the highest court in the land, and placed George W. Bush in the Oval Office. With nearly 400 election-related lawsuits filed this year, many over the question of which votes will be counted, a close result on Election Day could once again leave the Supreme Court in a position to issue a ruling that determines who occupies the White House for the next four years.
Bush’s lead counsel in both 2000 cases, renowned Supreme Court advocate Theodore B. Olson, just released to UVA’s Miller Center an oral-history interview about the crucial role he played in that astounding Supreme Court drama. As the nation faces the possibility of another contested Presidential election, Olson’s unique insights provide a roadmap for attorneys who might find themselves pleading the case of who should win the Presidency. Here are seven tactics, in his own words, that he used to win the litigation.
Bring deep knowledge of election law to the argument. “I had helped out in a case from Alabama a couple of years before,” Olson explained. “It concerned an election dispute involving the Alabama Supreme Court, which had gone all the way to the Eleventh Circuit [U.S. Court of Appeals], where the rules were changed after the election, involving the counting of absentee ballots. [T]here was an issue about whether signatures on absentee ballots had to be notarized or not. Before the election they had to be notarized, and after the election they weren’t …. The Eleventh Circuit, which was where we were in Florida, had found that process violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Constitution. I felt that that was a predicate . . . to file a federal lawsuit, trying to stop what was going on [in Florida], what we thought was unfair rule changing after the election ….”
Know the justices. “I have known and had somewhat personal relationships with most of the members on the Court ….,” Olson observed. “I was in the Justice Department when Justice O’Connor was appointed. … I have known her since then and still have enormous admiration and affection for her. She’s just a wonderful person. And Justice Scalia because we were [in the] Office of Legal Counsel. … Justice Kennedy came from California and was at McGeorge Law School. McGeorge is a part of where I went to college. Justice Ginsburg has become a good friend.” But Olson observed in 2012 that “it’s still a very proper, professional relationship. If you’re going to be appearing before the Court, you’re just careful about what you say or what you don’t say.”
Don’t lecture the Court. In the Bush-Gore controversy’s first oral argument, legendary Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe served as the Vice President’s counsel. “I can’t remember exactly how well he did,” Olson noted, “but I think he was awfully professorial with the justices, and I mean that in the sense that he is one of the leading constitutional scholars in the United States, and he’s recognized widely as such. I think that his tone was a little bit, ‘I’m going to now tell you about the Constitution.’ He tends to lean over the podium maybe as if he were in a class someplace, dealing with some people that he was going to help understand the Constitution.”
Spot the constitutional violation in your opponents’ vote-count request. “[I]t was also clear that the [Florida] recount was a chaotic system itself,” Olson told his interviewers. “Four different counties were counting the ballots differently. They were unsure of what the rules were, or they were changing the rules. The process by which you count these punch-out ballots is very problematic anyway, and it seemed to be chaotic and the rules seemed to be changing, and the process seemed to be unequal.” Olson saw these actions running afoul of the Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.
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