Just–released documents from the late Justice John Paul Stevens’ archives have shed light on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2000 presidential election, and the role played by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the landmark decision.
The documents, released on Tuesday, reveal that O’Connor’s four–page memo was circulated among the justices even before oral arguments were heard. This memo, which was endorsed by fellow conservative–centrist Justice Anthony Kennedy, played a major role in pushing out an argument advanced by then–Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
The documents show how O’Connor and Kennedy effectively steered the outcome of Bush v. Gore, a five–four decision that stopped county recounts for Florida’s decisive presidential electors and gave then–Texas Gov. George W. Bush the victory over then–Vice President Al Gore.
The decision, which has been described as one of the greatest threats to the court’s vaunted impartiality and institutional stature, was handed down on the evening of December 12, 2000, just one day after oral arguments were heard.
O’Connor’s views, expressed in her December 10, 2000, memo, were ultimately endorsed by Kennedy and this helped to shape the final per curiam opinion that spoke for the five–justice majority.
In her memo, O’Connor highlighted the flaws of the ongoing recounts ordered by the state court and noted that “the Florida Supreme Court provided no uniform, statewide method for identifying and separating the undervotes.”
The decision, which mirrored the deep divisions in the county after an election that for weeks remained too close to call, has been viewed as a major milestone in American politics. It has also been seen as a significant moment in the history of the Supreme Court, given the tension among the nine justices being asked to decide a presidential election on short deadlines.
The documents released from Stevens’ archives offer a first–ever look into the behind–the–scenes negotiations that took place over the case and demonstrate the strong hand of O’Connor, who was at the ideological center of the court in this era.
The impact of the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore ruling remains significant, with echoes of its arguments being used in Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.