Amy Coney Barrett was just three years out of law school, a 28-year-old associate at a boutique Washington law firm, when she was dispatched to Florida to help George W. Bush’s legal team rescue thousands of Republican absentee ballots.
The litigation was a sidebar to the central drama of the 2000 presidential contest, but a loss in the case could have cost Bush the presidency.
At issue were thousands of absentee ballot request forms in Martin County — just north of Palm Beach County, home of the notorious “butterfly ballot” — that had missing voter registration information.
After county officials allowed the GOP to take the forms back and fill in the missing information, a Democratic voter sued, saying ballots cast by those voters should be tossed out. The county canvassing board, the Florida Republican Party and the Bush campaign argued that the votes should still count.
Barrett’s work on the case serves as a reminder of how aggressively the Republican Party has sought to harness mail voting for years, in contrast to President Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on the practice.
This year, the Trump campaign and Republicans in Iowa have pushed to invalidate tens of thousands of absentee ballot applications with missing information that had been filled in by county officials.
“It’s the very antithesis of what we were arguing to the courts back then,” said Daryl Bristow, who represented the Bush campaign in the Martin County absentee ballot case and a related suit in nearby Seminole County. “We were trying to keep voters from being disenfranchised.”
As both parties brace for the possibility of another contested election that Trump has suggested could go to the high court, the previously unreported role of his Supreme Court nominee in the absentee ballot fight is more than a historical footnote. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh also played a role in Bush v. Gore — meaning that if Barrett is confirmed, three of the nine justices will have participated in litigation related to the only presidential contest to be decided by the high court.
“Here we are, two decades after Bush v. Gore, and it’s as if it was yesterday,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor. “It divided the nation 20 years ago, and it’s amazing how it continues to be a specter in national politics.”
In the U.S. Senate questionnaire she submitted late last month, Barrett said she spent a week in Florida contributing research and briefing assistance on Bush v. Gore, but provided no specifics. Court records show that she is on the list of lawyers who were served with filings in the Martin County case, indicating her involvement in that suit.
Barrett did not respond to a request for comment made through the White House and has not publicly discussed her precise duties in the Martin County case. In her Senate questionnaire, she said she worked in Florida with Stuart Levey, a partner in the Washington law firm Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, who was part of the Bush team battling to keep the Republican mail votes. (Miller Cassidy merged with the venerable firm Baker Botts the following year.)
Levey declined to comment.
First in her law school class at Notre Dame and a former clerk for Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, Barrett fit the profile of the kind of up-and-coming conservative lawyer the Republican Party recruited to parachute into Florida to help in the hotly contested recount.
Amy Douthit Maddux, a junior lawyer on the Bush team who remembers communicating with another lawyer named Amy on the case, said, “It was just exciting to be able to work on something of such importance as a very young lawyer, and given the speed with which things were happening, everyone was relied upon.”
The Martin County plaintiff, Ronald Taylor, was seeking to capitalize on a glitch in the state Republican Party’s absentee ballot program.
Request forms sent by the party to Republican voters mistakenly omitted their voter registration numbers, leading those requests to be set aside by the Martin County elections office. The county elections supervisor allowed a local Republican Party official to take the incomplete request forms, add the missing numbers and return them the following day, according to court filings. GOP voters who had used the request forms to seek absentee ballots were then able to receive them.
The Democratic plaintiff argued those votes were tainted. “It was a sinister underground conspiracy,” argued his attorney Edward Stafman, according to newspaper accounts.
Along with the similar lawsuit in nearby Seminole County, Democrats were trying to nix roughly 25,000 absentee votes in a contest in which Bush was leading by 537 votes.
Back-to-back trials were held in Leon County Circuit Court in Tallahassee. The judges issued a joint statement: “Despite irregularities in the requests for absentee ballots, neither the sanctity of the ballots nor the integrity of the election has been compromised, and … the election results reflect a full and fair expression of the will of the voters.”
Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, whose campaign was making the case that every vote must be counted, did not join the lawsuits.
“It tells you that sometimes what goes around comes around,” said veteran GOP election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, who served as national counsel for the Bush campaign, and noted that Democrats this year are fighting to expand which mail ballots are counted. “You have to admire the irony of the moment since that is not consistent with the position [Democrats are] taking now.”
The Martin and Seminole County plaintiffs immediately appealed to the Florida Supreme Court as the clock ticked toward the deadline for the state to appoint its 25 presidential electors. “It was a crazy, crazy kind of schedule,” said Mark Miller, then a colleague of Barrett, who recalled scrambling with her from Washington to Orlando to assist the Bush campaign.
The same day the U.S. Supreme Court essentially handed the election to Bush by putting a stop to manual recounts in the state, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s decision in the Martin and Seminole County cases.
“It was a no-brainer on the law,” Maddux said. “There was no proof anywhere that the people who voted should not have voted. But they were important cases because had it gone south, it would have been enough to change the results.”
Along with young lawyers like Barrett, the GOP pulled in seasoned constitutional experts for help in Florida.
Roberts, a then 45-year-old who had worked in the White House and argued dozens of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court as a partner in a Washington law firm, was summoned to Tallahassee to advise the Bush campaign and prep a lawyer appearing before the Florida Supreme Court.
That lawyer was Michael Carvin, a Washington-based voting rights expert, who said Roberts’s legal skills and grasp of constitutional issues were prized in the early weeks of the election dispute.
The Bush campaign was opposing Democratic efforts to extend the recount in Palm Beach County and arguing that the Florida secretary of state had the authority to declare a winner seven days after the election. Lawyers hunkered down at the Republican Party’s headquarters in Tallahassee worked frantically to submit the brief to the Florida Supreme Court on a Sunday evening. “It was bedlam,” Carvin recalled.
To prepare for court the next day, Carvin, Roberts and a handful of others adjourned to attorney Barry Richards’s Tallahassee law office. In the relative quiet of a conference room, Roberts helped Carvin hone his responses to questions he expected from the state court judges, Carvin recalled.
“It wasn’t brain surgery,” he said, adding that the legal issues were straightforward. But he said having Roberts on hand was helpful not only for that moment, but in anticipating future legal developments.
Carvin said he and Roberts correctly guessed that Bush would lose that state court skirmish over the Palm Beach County recount. But while preparing for that battle, they developed a strategy that would raise the federal issues that would assure a later review by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
Roberts returned to Tallahassee in December to offer counsel to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who was in the crosshairs as his brother’s leading campaign surrogate and the chief executive of a state facing an election meltdown.
In an email to The Washington Post, Bush said he had asked his top legal advisers “to find the best constitutional lawyers to brief me on my Constitutional duties as Governor … I recused myself from responsibilities regarding state law but I had ministerial duties I wanted to do correctly.”
Frank Jimenez, then acting general counsel to Gov. Bush, said he recommended Roberts on a suggestion from Dean Colson, a prominent Miami lawyer who had co-clerked with Roberts for Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist. The night before the appointment with Bush, Jimenez, a son of Cuban immigrants, took Roberts to Carlos’ Cuban Cafe in Tallahassee for dinner.
During their hourlong meeting, Roberts and Bush discussed two election-related documents the governor needed to sign and send to the National Archives, Jimenez said.
“Thank you for your time today. I really appreciate your input on my role in this unique and historic situation,” Bush said in an email to Roberts released shortly before the governor’s presidential campaign launch in 2015.
In contrast to Roberts and Barrett, who worked quietly behind the scenes in Florida, Kavanaugh was out in public on behalf of the Bush campaign.
Then a 35-year-old partner at one of the nation’s largest law firms and battle-tested from working with independent counsel Ken Starr to investigate President Bill Clinton, he went to Democratic-leaning Volusia County in central Florida to help oversee a manual recount of roughly 200,000 ballots, according to Kavanaugh’s Senate questionnaire. He had been serving as a regional coordinator for the Bush campaign’s coalition of legal supporters.
Unlike in South Florida, where punchcard ballots led to the much-maligned hanging chads, Volusia County used optical scan ballots. Kavanaugh helped direct the Republican strategy of closely scrutinizing ballots where voters had failed to properly fill in the bubble next to a candidate’s name, said Shannen Coffin, another Republican attorney on the ground in Volusia.
“Brett was kind of the guy we looked up to,” said Coffin, who later served as counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney. “If there was an irregularity in the recount process, he wanted it documented. It was a zealous representation of a client, but not a win-at-any-cost strategy.”
Weeks later, Kavanaugh delivered legal analysis on national television outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the eve of the momentous decision that ended the election morass. He would go on to serve as associate counsel to the new president.
“I think what we are seeing is more of a divide over how to interpret the Constitution than really political differences,” Kavanaugh said in the interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I don’t think the justices care that it’s Bush versus Gore or if it were Gore versus Bush. What they care about is how to interpret the Constitution, what are the enduring values that are going to stand a generation from now.”