Early in the year 2000, I answered a request from Professor Bernard Hibbitts, asking for volunteers to assist with the development of JURIST, the legal education portal he had created and developed at the University of Pittsburgh. I had no particular idea of how I might assist, but Bernard apparently found a biography for me somewhere in cyberspace, analyzed it, and came up with the suggestion that I compile a resource guide on the law of the upcoming presidential election. He correctly deduced that this would be an area of interest to me and I quickly agreed. The resulting product "aired" first in March, and was a collection of on-line resources, with brief introductory comments from me, covering the key legal topics that always accompany a presidential election, or at least were likely to figure in this one. Campaign finance was the major focus, but I also included some materials on broadcasting, presidential debates, the electoral college, and voter registration. At the time, that seemed to be all one ever could want to know about election law.
All that, of course, changed on November 7, when the Florida popular vote was counted (for the first time). The nation was plunged into an uncertain and archaic world of chads, recounts, contests, and butterfly ballots. While I gazed blankly at CNN for hours, Bernard and his band of wizards had immediately sprung into action to gather some additional materials for the Election Guide on recount procedures and voter fraud. On November 8, he gently prodded me into further action, and thus began our particular version of the 36-day odyssey.
Bernard & Co. quietly and effortlessly amassed a large collection, augmented daily, of links and resources for the filings in the expanding number of Florida lawsuits, as well as very valuable resources for Florida statutory and case law. My primary contribution was a frequently-asked-question (and answer) column, in which I attempted to give plain-English-yet-thorough answers to some of the questions on many observers' minds. The initial round of questions concerned the infamous Palm Beach County "butterfly ballot," which started out as the focus of controversy but was quickly eclipsed by other issues. The "FAQ" materials were updated daily (usually several times daily) as new wrinkles appeared or court decisions were rendered. The breadth of FAQ topics expanded paralleled the expanding contours of the election disputes; we added discussion and resources relating to absentee ballots, manual recounts, the 12th Amendment, overseas ballots, federal civil rights law, transition planning, the electoral college, and other topics. (Mechanically, I e-mailed all of my contributions to JURIST HQ in Pittsburgh, where it was promptly added to the site -- and thankfully proofread.)
As the pace of litigation and court decisions quickened, I added an omnibus question entitled "What's going on?" In the WGO column, I sought to give a thumbnail sketch of the day's legal events. The WGO "answer" often was updated three or four times per day. At Bernard's suggestion, I also added a glossary to aid in deciphering some of the new additions to the national vocabulary and, later, a tabular "Status Report" that gave readers an at-a-glance update of the status of and developments in each of the major court cases. The original campaign finance-plus election guide became a small link from the new guide.
As my capsule biography on the site disclosed, my relevant legal experience has been on the Democratic side. However, I was determined not to mix advocacy with analysis on this project and hopefully no "spin" infected any of my commentary. Indeed, I declined at least two appearances on major national broadcasts because they were searching for an expert willing to advocate the Gore position.
We were fortunate in being able to enlist several constitutional scholars to add their original commentary on aspects of the election disputes. These pieces were uniformly provocative, timely, and enhanced the quality of the ongoing debate. In particular, Cumberland constitutional historian Bill Ross was a regular contributor. Bernard Hibbitts also paired two constitutional heavyweights with differing orientations -- Ronald Rotunda and Peter Shane -- in a running e-mail dialogue that tracked the issues of the day.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the otherwise draining saga were the many e-mail exchanges I had with JURIST readers. Most, but not all, of the comments and questions that we received came from nonlawyers. Inquiries came from across the United States, as well as from Norway, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere. All of the questions were good ones, and several caused me to refine or rethink some of my approaches to issues. We began to post some of this "viewer mail" in a designated area of the site.
In retrospect, I sincerely believe that we were able to fill a gap in the torrent of media coverage of the contested 2000 election. Some of the other media organizations offered access to some of the primary litigation materials, and others offered some truncated legal analyses, but JURIST was the only Website that maintained comprehensive, current, accurate, and unbiased information of a range and quality useful to a wide variety of people, from lawyers, to journalists, to those seeking to become informed citizens and participate in the national debate. Visitors to JURIST could find out what the breaking news was, then get some distillation of the legal principles that were shaping the day's events, and then read for themselves the statutory provisions or case law in play, the parties' briefs, and the court decisions. Hopefully these resources will be of lasting value as many people continue to study this remarkable moment in our nation's history.
Dean Tony Sutin
Appalachian Law School