U.S. Supreme Court may not have final say in presidential election, despite Trump threat

Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley
·4-min read
View of the U.S. Supreme Court building the day after Election Day in Washington
View of the U.S. Supreme Court building the day after Election Day in Washington

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While President Donald Trump wants the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on a presidential race that is still too close to call, it may not be the final arbiter in this election, legal experts said.

They said it was doubtful that courts would entertain a bid by Trump to stop the counting of ballots that were received before or on Election Day, or that any dispute a court might handle would change the trajectory of the race in closely fought states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.

With ballots still being counted in many states in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Trump made an appearance at the White House and falsely declared victory against Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Trump railed against voting by mail during the election campaign, saying without providing evidence that it led to fraud, which is rare in U.S. elections. Sticking to that theme, Trump said: "This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we'll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop."

Trump did not provide any evidence to back up his claim of fraud or detail what litigation he would pursue at the Supreme Court. Later in the day, his campaign filed to intervene in a case already pending at the Supreme Court seeking to block late-arriving mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania.

The Trump campaign and other Republicans have also filed various complaints in other states, including an attempt to stop votes being counted in Michigan.

As of Wednesday evening, the election still hung in the balance. A handful of closely contested states could decide the outcome in the coming hours or days, as a large number of mail-in ballots cast amid the coronavirus pandemic appears to have drawn out the process.

However, legal experts said that while there could be objections to particular ballots or voting and counting procedures, it was unclear if such disputes would determine the final outcome.

Ned Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University, said the current election does not have the ingredients that would create a situation like in the 2000 presidential race, when the Supreme Court ended a recount in George W. Bush's favor against Democrat Al Gore.

"It’s extremely early on but at the moment it doesn’t seem apparent how this would end up where the U.S. Supreme Court would be decisive," Foley said.

Both Republicans and Democrats have amassed armies of lawyers ready to go to the mat in a close race. Biden's team includes Marc Elias, a top election attorney at the firm Perkins Coie, and former Solicitors General Donald Verrilli and Walter Dellinger. Trump's lawyers include Matt Morgan, the president's campaign general counsel, Supreme Court litigator William Consovoy, and Justin Clark, senior counsel to the campaign.

Trump attorney Jenna Ellis on Wednesday defended Trump's bid to challenge the vote count and evaluate his legal options. "If we have to go through these legal challenges, that's not unprecedented," Ellis told Fox Business Network in an interview. "He wants to make sure that the election is not stolen."

The case closest to being resolved by the Supreme Court is the Pennsylvania dispute in which Republicans are challenging a September ruling by Pennsylvania's top court allowing mail-in ballots that were postmarked by Election Day and received up to three days later to be counted.

The Supreme Court previously declined to fast-track an appeal by Republicans. But three conservative justices left open the possibility of taking up the case again after Election Day.

Even if the court were to take up the case and rule for Republicans, it may not determine the final vote in Pennsylvania, as the case only concerns mail-in ballots received after Nov. 3.

David Boies, who represented Gore in 2000, said it is unlikely that the Trump campaign would succeed in a possible third effort to block the extended deadline.

"I think that it’s more posturing and hope than anything else," Boies said, adding that the Pennsylvania outcome could even become irrelevant, depending on the result in Michigan and Wisconsin.

In a separate Pennsylvania case filed in federal court in Philadelphia, Republicans have accused officials in suburban Montgomery County of illegally counting mail-in ballots early and also giving voters who submitted defective ballots a chance to re-vote.

If Biden secures 270 electoral votes without needing Pennsylvania, the likelihood of a legal fight in that state diminishes in any case, legal experts said.

And any challenge would also need to make its way through the usual court hierarchy.

"I think the Court would summarily turn away any effort by the President or his campaign to short-circuit the ordinary legal process," said Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

"Even Bush v. Gore went through the Florida state courts first."

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York, Lawrence Hurley in Washington, Karen Freifeld in New York, Suzanne Barlyn in Washington Crossing, Pa., and Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Rosalba O'Brien and Grant McCool)