This Oral History is copyrighted by the Interviewee
and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program on
behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of
Copyright, 2005, University of Florida.
All rights, reserved.
This oral history may be used for research,
instruction, and private study under the provisions
of Fair Use. Fair Use is a provision of United States
Copyright Law (United States Code, Title 17, section
107) which allows limited use of copyrighted
materials under certain conditions.
Fair use limts the amount of material that may be
For all other permissions and requests, contact the
SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Summary of Interview (October 3, 2002)
Waters gives background to becoming Director of Public Information for the Florida
Supreme Court (starting in 1998), and also establishing live broadcasts in the
courtroom. He details his duties and describes dealing with the press on a daily basis.
He recalls on Election Day 2000 he was in Orlando giving a talk about how to use the
web to distribute public information. He talks about being summoned back to
Tallahassee by Chief Justice Charles Wells's office. He knew there might be lawsuits
but did not grasp the enormity of the confusion. He puts together "an emergency
operations plan with Justice Wells, the clerk of the court, and a marshal. He states that
he knew "something about election law in Florida" so he was somewhat prepared. He
describes what he thought to be a "skirmish" at the beginning of the post-election
process, not realizing that it would be "a drawn-out thirty-six day battle over the
presidency of the United States."
Waters mentions getting around 3.5 million hits a day on the court's website. Using
additional servers, his office was "able to dispense, literally, hundreds of millions of
documents worldwide on a continuous basis." He talks about his function as the briefs
and cases come into the Florida Supreme Court and then creating a Florida Supreme
Court website for this post-election process. He discusses the 15,000-plus emails that
came to his office during the post-election period--most were filled with emotion one
way or the other--and they are all public record now. He gives examples of some of
these emails--some threatening-some obscene. He describes what it is like being an
internationally recognizable figure and having an armed escort. He speaks about the
daily briefings before the press.
Waters describes Tallahassee as a "mob scene" and the "run-of-the-mill kooks" who
showed up around the Capitol. He remarks that the news media was hungry for any
new information twenty-four hours a day. He talks about securing the court's website
and distributing printed copies of opinions after they had been posted on the website
much earlier. He heard praise from many who had read the website that they were glad
they could read the decisions without the media filter and without the "spin meisters."
He talks about how erroneous and damaging information circulated because these
statements were repeatedly made, such as with Chuck Colson of Watergate fame. He
adds that he realized "that there were people out there who were completely willing to
misinterpret what this court had done, and doing so publicly and repeating it over and
over again in an effort to influence public opinion."
Waters describes some of the positive aspects this post-election process, such as "how
important it can be for courts to have a public information function and to communicate
in a timely basis with the rest of the world." He thinks the U.S. Supreme Court will
eventually follow in Florida's footsteps with an openness policy. He remarks on the
negative aspects of Florida's Sunshine Laws, such as attorneys wanting to grandstand
in front of the cameras. He says attorneys can rise and fall under the camera's eye. He
gives insight into selecting which journalists, non-participating attorneys, and the
general public got access to the hearings. He reports that the media stereotyped the
Florida Supreme Court "based on the governors that had appointed them [and]
stereotyped based on their political affiliations." He also thinks that the media "were
awed by the openness" of the court system (under the Florida Sunshine Law).
Waters describes a typical day during this post-election process, including mass
briefings. He speaks of the long hours that the justices put in and also the over-worked
clerks. He talks about the precedent for expediting opinions--using the "death warrants
pending" model for quick deliberations. He discusses being nervous about making the
announcement of the court's 4-3 decision (allowing for a recount),and then hearing "a
big moan" among the press. He says the police wanted him to wear a bullet-proof vest
due to the large crowds assembling--but he decided against it. He recounts the tension
that filled the air during this announcement and learning later that armed guards were
positioned on the rooftops. He says making the announcement was done
simultaneously with posting it on the website so the media would have equal access.
Waters states that he was surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court took the first case, but
not surprised by its taking the second case. He feels that the first Bush v. Gore
"changed the landscape of the law. From then on, this had ceased to be what looked
like an exclusively state law issue." He adds that the "greatest surprise of all, to me,
was when the stay order was issued." He relates that he was also surprised that the
decision was based on the Fourteenth Amendment. He does not feel that the final 5-4
decision was a partisan ruling because "we had courts that were so evenly split at both
levels ...." He refers to the Dred Scott case "an abomination. I cannot call Bush v.
Gore an abomination." He says that despite the negative feelings held about the Florida
Supreme Court, that animosity has died down in the intervening two years. He refers to
Jim Baker as a "master" of "active spin" who was "playing to a public audience." He
discredits those who believed there was a constitutional crisis because having the
presidential election decided in the House of Representatives is not considered a
Waters talks about the impact of this post-election process: "It put me on the speaking
circuit" and "it turned me into something of a national expert on crisis communication,
using the World Wide Web and broadcasting." He relates several humorous anecdotes
during those thirty-six days. He recounts that after it was all over, he came down with
the "chad crud." He views this entire process as a great event but glad it finally was
finished. He adds, "Yes, it's great to have the success behind you, but when you're
living with it, it's very difficult. There were other funny episodes, but nothing that
made anybody look bad or made the court look bad." He reports that a literary agent
wanted him to write a "kiss-and-tell" kind of book to "confirm that there was a conspiracy
of some kind." But he says he has no time--and there was no conspiracy.
Interviewee: Craig Waters
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: October 2, 2002
P: This is Julian Pleasants. I'm in Tallahassee, Florida, and I'm speaking with Craig
Waters. Give me your background and how you came to be Director of Public
Information for the Florida Supreme Court.
W: I was a journalist for four years before I went to law school at the University of
Florida. I graduated in December 1986, and happened to notice that one of the
justices of the [Florida] Supreme Court, the first woman on the Court, Rosemary
Barkett, had an opening [available in her staff] beginning early in 1987. I
interviewed and was hired by her. I worked here as a staff attorney for a number
of years. In 1996, my boss at the time, Gerald Kogan, became Chief Justice and
moved me into administration. I was his executive assistant. During that period of
time, he asked me to create the Court's first public information program including
web based material and also broadcasts from our courtroom. It gradually evolved
into a full-time job in itself. When Justice Kogan retired from the Court, after he
ceased being Chief Justice, we divided my job into three, one of those being the
public information function. I took that as Director of Public Information, which
became full-time starting in 1998.
P: Did you set up the Access Initiative, which was gavel to gavel coverage of the
Florida Supreme Court?
W: Right. One of the major components of the Kogan administration was his Access
Initiative. He wanted to improve public access to the Supreme Court. One of the
ways that we did that, apart from using the world wide web, was to install
broadcast quality cameras in our courtroom linked directly by fiberoptic cable to
our broadcast partner, FSU [Florida State University], and their communications
school. They then began live broadcasts, starting in September 1997, of our
arguments. They are distributed to anybody who wants them via satellite, and
they're also web cast over the internet world wide.
P: This is live?
W : It's live.
P: What are your specific duties now? Are you less involved with the information
W: Oh, no. Information is the major part of my job at this point. I deal with the press
on a daily basis. I maintain the public information press pages of our websites on
a daily basis. I distribute opinions electronically to the press. I coordinate our
broadcast with WFSU. I answer press inquiries, handle public information
requests, and do a number of other duties as required by the justices and the
P: What was election day [November 2000] like for you in a personal sense?
W: Election day was really kind of off the radar screen with me because I was in
Orlando at a conference of the National Conference of Court Public Information
Officers. It was our annual conference, and I, of course, had voted absentee
before going down there. I was on the faculty, so I was giving a presentation. In
fact, I gave my presentation the morning of the election, and the presentation
was on using the web to distribute public information to the media and to
anybody who wants it. I did not understand at the time that I would have a big
homework assignment waiting for me when I got back to Tallahassee. The
conference was a typical conference. We had a number of reporters there. I
remember us sitting at lunch on election day, sitting chatting about the election,
talking about the what ifs and all of that. The day's meetings ended, and I went to
my hotel room after we had a dinner that evening. I got back and I turned on the
election results for awhile. It looked like it was going to be a cliff hanger and was
going to go on for a long while, and I knew I'd never get to sleep if I started
watching it. So I switched over and watched a pay-per-view version of Gladiator.
[I] finished that and went to bed completely ignorant of what was happening in
the greater world at the time.
I got up early the next morning because our conference would start early, and, of
course, there was a newspaper waiting for me outside the door of the hotel. It
was an earlier version, I believe it actually was one that said Gore had won. I
thought, "Well, that's the end of that, another election over." Then I turned on
CNN, and they were saying that there had been this chaos going on in Florida,
that they'd called it for Gore, then they'd called it for Bush, then they retracted the
statement. When I heard that, I ran down to the front desk of the hotel, which had
a stack of Orlando Sentinels there. They had the latest version that said it was
too close to call and that there had been all these problems in Palm Beach
County and questions about other matters in the election. I called up the
Associated Press office in Tallahassee to see what the latest news was. They
told me that it was still undecided and that everybody was talking about lawsuits.
Shortly after that, I got a call from the Chief Justice's office telling me to get back
to Tallahassee immediately because they were already getting inquiries from the
national media and that I needed to be there. So I went down to the president of
our organization and told him that I had to leave. I was in a rental car, so I drove
all the way back and got back shortly after noon. We began preparing for what
we thought would be a major event, completely oblivious that it would not be
major, it would be enormous. I got together with the Chief Justice at the time, it
was Charles T. Wells. [I] also met with our clerk of court and our marshal to begin
putting together an emergency operations plan. It turned out that we greatly
underestimated what actually would come our way. My estimate at the time was
that, at the outside, it would last maybe two weeks. Yes, we'd have national
media here, but it wouldn't be unmanageable. It would be a slightly larger version
of the kind of controversies we get here all the time.
P: So from the beginning, you were expecting some significant legal cases.
W: Yes, I was expecting them. Mainly because, when I was a staff attorney here, I
did do a lot of work on election cases. So I know something about election law in
Florida. I had, of course, seen the controversy about the butterfly ballot, which
was the first one to arise. Quite frankly, my legal estimation of that at the time,
which I, of course, did not share with the media or others, was that the butterfly
ballot was not likely to be a meritorious case. There had been a number of cases
in Florida talking about flaws in ballot design, and, essentially, there is some give
and take there for technical errors that do not really call into question the entire
election itself. Of course, that subsequently is what happened with the butterfly
ballot case. What we did not know was that all these other cases would arise.
Altogether nearly some fifty cases involving some 500 attorneys were headed
our way, and some actually made it up here. Quite frankly, I just thought this was
going to be a skirmish, not a drawn out thirty-six day battle over the presidency of
the United States.
P: When you set up your website, I noticed, at one point, that you got up to
3,500,000 hits a day.
W: Right, and that was just on our server here, which is the "flcourts.org" server.
That's the capacity, or was the capacity at the time.
P: So you had to put in a backup server.
W: Well, we have had a duplicate server at another location here in Tallahassee that
was loaned to us by the Department of Education. We've had that since 1996,
and we've used it as backup whenever there were problems with our server or
we have to do server maintenance. So we were actually diverting people onto
this other server. The Department of Education, I think, became rather unhappy
with us about the amount of traffic they were getting, although there was very
little that anybody could do about it at the time. Later on, as we maxed out the
capacity of both servers, we did hire the services of a web redistribution service
called Akamai, which literally has servers all over the world. They have the
capacity to essentially duplicate any website and make it easier for people to
access it. So ultimately we were distributing via Akamai, and were able to
dispense, literally, hundreds of millions of documents worldwide on a continuous
basis. We also used Akamai for distribution of our web casts during the second
case, the recount case. During the first case, the web server that handled the
web casts literally crashed and was unusable under the weight of the traffic.
P: What was your function as the briefs and the cases came in?
W: I was the one, I believe it was the Friday right after the election, I actually created
the presidential election page that we would use. It was a simple design that I've
used before. You use simple designs because they download quicker for any
controversial matter. It was designed so that it would automatically check for new
documents every five minutes, which was a feature that I found useful in the
past. I could then tell the reporters to simply leave it on their screen, and it would
reload itself and would tell when new documents were filed. So that was one of
the first things that I did. Of course, as the briefs began coming in, the fifteenth
[of November] was the first day we got filings, I began adding those to the page
itself. I guess to show how naive I was about what was going to happen at the
time, I put my own e-mail link at the bottom of this page. [I] did not realize it until
quite some time later, I had also put my cell phone number at the bottom of this
page. [I] was literally inundated with e-mails and cell phone calls. Many times I
had to turn the cell phone off because it just became unusable.
P: I understand people called you late at night. What were some of the responses
from your callers?
W: They were all across the board, everything you could imagine. Both extremes.
People who were very unhappy with what the Court had done. People who were
cussing mad at what the Court had done. People who thought that the Court was
the savior of the world. People who thought that our justices, or the majority of
the justices, were the noblest species of human being on the Earth. Then [there
were] those who thought the exact opposite, and everything in between. It was
something of a circus of responses. I think there was so much emotion going on
at the time that people were really firing off responses, making telephone calls,
and sending e-mails without putting much thought into the fact that, particularly
with the e-mails, they are actually public record under Florida law and will be
P: How many e-mails did you get?
W: I got about 15,000 e-mails over the course of the thirty days. There certainly were
a larger number sent to me, but because of the huge volume coming in, not all of
them could jam through the bandwidth at the same time. I got a lot of reports
from people. I actually had voice mail messages left from people who'd said their
messages had been returned as undeliverable, but that was simply because they
were colliding with other e-mail that were coming into my account.
P: Give me an example of some of the more interesting e-mails.
W: Well, some of the stranger ones. I had a very large number of people, for
example, who were Republican advocates, who, especially at the later stages of
the election controversy, thought it would be a coup if I would resign my office in
protest in the middle of all this. I actually had, it was probably several hundred,
people calling in various forms to suggest that I resign and call a press
conference or whatever, and impugn my Court in whatever way I could. I, of
course, have worked here for nearly sixteen years. It was fourteen years then.
I've been with my Court through thick and thin and had absolutely no intention of
doing anything like that, especially since the many conspiracy theories that were
going around were wholly baseless. From my perspective, inside here, there was
P: Were there any threats?
W: There were a lot of threats, most of them veiled. I got a lot of e-mails with
comments like, "Run while you still can." We got some others that were obscene
in nature, but could be interpreted as threatening. I actually got a number of e-
mails that could be construed as threats against some of the other public figures
involved in this case, such as Katherine Harris and even President Bush's
daughters. We handed [these] over to law enforcement authorities.
P: Any direct threats against the justices?
W: I did not get any directly, but there were certainly some that were vague enough
that they could have been interpreted that way. So security was an issue. The
marshal decided, at one point, that when I went out in public from then on until
the controversy ended, I would have to have an armed security guard with me
because of that.
P: Obviously, it was the same for all the justices?
W: Whenever they were in public places, yes. Although, I can tell you, I certainly
avoided going out in the public during all of this. Even when I went out to deal
with the press in front of our building, people would stop me. I had people cuss
me. I had people praise me. It was a very different kind of experience. Even after
the whole matter had ended, when I went home for Christmas in Pensacola, I
went out with my family on a few occasions. One time we were at a shopping
center with my sister and my mother, and there was a line of people at the plate
glass window staring and pointing at me. It's a very unnerving feeling, especially
since the Pensacola area is Republican territory, and they certainly were not
particularly happy with what my Court had done.
P: Jeff Greenfield, in his book, said that you became an internationally recognizable
figure. I assume you didn't expect that.
W: No, I never did. It was something that I really had to be hit in the face with before
I even realized it had happened because I just thought it was so implausible. The
day that it actually hit home with me occurred early on during that first week
leading up to the first argument. It was the second week after the election. I had
been going out and briefing the press, as I normally do. Our marshal had decided
very early on that he was going to close the building to the public and the press,
so the press began gathering on the front steps of the building. Many people
actually felt that we staged this for the front steps of the building, but it evolved
over a period of time. It evolved very rapidly. But that was where the press would
gather, and I would go out and brief them periodically. In the first few days there
was only a small contingent of reporters there. So I could go out and just mingle
with them and brief them orally, which is what I was very accustomed to doing. It
never even occurred to me that some of the cameras might be live at that point in
time. When I normally deal with the press here in Tallahassee, it's all taped and
Of course, we just never imagined that this would become as big as it did. Then
one day, it was probably about Wednesday of the week after the election, I got a
call from one of the CNN reporters who had a question. I believe it was Susan
Candiotti. She was having to make hourly reports on what was going on in
Tallahassee. She called me up and said, "At the top of the hour I have to say
something, and I don't have anything to say. Could you please come out and just
talk with me? Just anything, I need anything." I said, "Okay, I will." I walked out
there, and I was instantly surrounded by videographers and reporters with
microphones stuck in my face. I was telling them, I was trying to tell them, I had
come out to talk to Susan and that nothing new had happened. Well, when I got
back into my office after this, I didn't think much about it, because, when you're in
the middle of it there, you don't see what people are seeing on the other end of
But I started getting a lot of e-mails, probably about a dozen or two dozen, mainly
from women who were very unhappy with me. I couldn't figure out why. One of
them even said that she felt a fourth grader could do my job. I thought, well, how
did this woman even know anything about me. I mean, I think she was from New
York or someplace like that. So finally a reporter friend of mine, I used to be a
reporter, and a former colleague of mine who worked for the St. Pete[ersburg]
Times sent me an e-mail. [He] said that his mother-in-law had been watching her
soap opera, and I had walked out on the steps. Dan Rather had interrupted the
soap opera to say that Craig Waters had something to say, and then I appeared
on television only to say that nothing new had happened. So his mother-in-law
was very unhappy that I had interrupted her soap opera. That was when I
realized that we were going to have to control my public appearances much more
rigidly than I was accustomed to. This kind of evolved as well.
It reached the point that even me going out when I had statements to make,
there were so many reporters later on, that I could not do them informally. I tried
one day, and the line of reporters was so long, and [since] I had to keep
repeating myself, I actually lost my voice and was croaking on television. So I
talked to the five big news networks and asked them what they needed for us to
make this work better. They said, "First of all, we need a podium, and, second,
you're going to have to go to some sort of mass briefing." Because doing a line,
some people get what they want and some people don't, so we have to do
everybody at the same time. So we brought up what became the famous podium.
Originally, it was simply put out there for the microphones, but that even became
more onerous. There was one time I went out there, it was on the seventeenth [of
November], when we announced the first order that essentially halted Secretary
Harris from certifying the election. Before I walked out to the podium, our security
staff told me, "Don't touch the podium, it has so many microphones on it and it's
so top heavy, it might fall over." So I was there, you know, afraid to touch the
podium for fear it would just fall right over on live television. That's pretty much
the way it remained, although later we did go to a pool system that reduced the
number of microphones that were out there. The five big news networks, ABC,
CBS, NBC, which is also, of course, affiliated with MSNBC, Fox, and CNN,
rotated the camera and the audio system out in front of the building on a daily
P: So in many cases, Tallahassee was a mob scene.
W: Oh, it was a tremendous mob scene out there. Of course, we're looking here out
the window at the site of it, the terraces on the west side of the capital building.
But if you were looking out back then, there would have been protesters in the
streets. Two of the lanes of traffic were closed off to accommodate satellite
trucks. There was a large tent sitting on the terraces where the news media had
set up their tents as their command centrals. CNN had the tallest of all the tents
out there, where they had Bill Hemmer, Greta Van Susteren, Larry King, and
several others doing broadcasts from there. Of course, they had the Florida
Supreme Court building in the backdrop. Then there were just mobs of partisans.
The police tried to keep the Democrats on one side and the Republicans on
another side so that they didn't get into fisticuffs over this. We also just had your
run-of- the-mill kooks that kept showing up. We had people who came dressed in
aluminum foil with satellite dishes strapped to their backs that were trying to
channel energy toward the Court. One evening we had a prayer circle completely
surrounding the court building.
P: Do you know which side they were praying for?
W: I didn't get a chance to catch the gist of their prayer. A security officer was
actually showing me through the prayer chain so I could go home. We had a
gentleman who owned an automobile museum who showed up here with one of
the original Batmobiles [from the Batman television series or movie], driving it
around the building and honking his horn repeatedly. We had a woman who
showed up with a pet skunk that could do back flips, and she got her fifteen
seconds on national television. That's the one interesting thing about an event
like this, which is literally a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, news
story, is that the networks are desperate for anything. That's what really changes
in this kind of news story from what most people are accustomed to and certainly
[what] most state courts [are accustomed to]. Usually the press comes here, they
get what they want, and they leave because it's a discrete story. It's not spread
out over a period of time, so you're not having to deal with twenty-four hour
demand for news. But when you get into the twenty-four [hours], seven [days a
week] business, all assumptions go out the window. That's when trivia can be
elevated to the point of being major news. I was greatly surprised at that when it
started happening. Although I did learn that that could be used to our advantage
to put a more positive face on what was going on here than some of the
negatives that were being spread around by some of the politicians.
P: How did you secure your website? Because somebody could have broken into it
and done quite a bit of damage.
W: We have a rather complex system. Essentially, it's a dual server system where
we have one server outside our firewall and one server inside our firewall. The
one inside our firewall really can't be accessed via the web. You can, but you'd
have to be very, very good to do that. What the one inside the web does, it
constantly updates the one that's outside the firewall. So even if someone broke
in and succeeded in changing the server outside the firewall, whatever they did
would be erased within a few minutes. On top of that, the traffic was so great it
would have been very difficult for anyone to engage our server long enough to
actually go in, rummage around, and make some changes, because it was being
hit constantly. That was, itself, sort of a security feature. It would have been very
unlikely for anyone to be able to use the server for any significant period of time.
Even when I was updating the website from my location, and I have direct access
to our server, they would have to literally bring our server down so that I could
update it. It was receiving so many hits that it was just constantly being used, and
I could not get into it from my computer. So the dual server system worked very
well because we would leave one of them up and running while I updated the
other one, which had been disconnected from its web link.
P: Did you also distribute hard copies?
W: We did, and we were quite surprised. We had been distributing electronically
since 1996, and the press corps here in Tallahassee is very accustomed to that.
We closed down our newsroom, and even our opinions are distributed
electronically via e-mail and over the [worldwide] web. What we did not anticipate
with this was the large number of out-of- town reporters who came here not
knowing how we normally work, of course. Many of them came here without
ready access to the web. At the height of it, the police estimated that we had
somewhere up to about 800 reporters outside the building. It's hard to estimate
because there were some fringe-type reporters, you know, someone who has
their own web page that they call an e-zine or whatever. They would show up
and claim to be a reporter. We had tremendous demand from these people for
copies of our documents. That reached sort of a highlight during the release of
the major opinion in November, when our highspeed photocopying machine
literally crashed and burned under the pressure of its use. We had to bring in
staff from all over the building. They were using literally every photocopying
machine in the building, and these are slow speed copiers, to produce copies.
The bottom line was the people standing outside didn't get paper copies for
about an hour and a half after they were released on the web. Many of them
would call their offices in New York and Washington only to find out that their
people there had already read and reported what had happened in the opinions
because they had gotten it quicker off the web. After that, demand for paper
trailed off tremendously.
P: Let me read you a statement that you were quoted as saying, during the thirty-six
days. You said, "Access to courts and public trust in courts are closely linked.
People distrust what appears to be secretive. They distrust government that
operates in the shadows. Even people who strongly disagreed with the Florida
Supreme Court election decisions sent e-mail to praise two things. One, the fact
that all documents in the case were promptly posted on the web, and two, the
fact that oral arguments were available in live video. I repeatedly heard from
people who said they were so glad they could read court documents without the
media filter. This was among the most positive aspects of the presidential
election cases." Do you still agree with that statement?
W: Yes, I do.
P: What was the emphasis here, because they could read it immediately without
having the media interpret it? But, a lot of these cases are pretty complicated.
P: So are these average individuals? Are these attorneys? Are these media people?
W: They were all across the board. We had a huge number of attorneys and judges
that were following it nationwide and a lot of people who were well educated
people, who were obviously reading the opinions and coming to their own
conclusions. I still strongly believe in that. The major problem that was thrown our
way was something that would have occurred anyway, whether or not we
released opinions in this way. That was the fact that we had some of the best
spin meisters in the business who were trying to put a negative spin on what our
Court was doing. In many cases [they were] really misinterpreting what had
actually been done in opinions and doing so for their own political reasons. That
would have happened no matter what we did with the web or the broadcasts.
P: You mean things like the Drudge Report?
W: Well, there were reports, for example, that the Florida Supreme Court had put the
initial stay on Katherine Harris's certification without anything being filed here.
That was not true, but that was an example of the kind of negative spin. There
was a case that was pending here whenever the Court issued that order, and it
was in that case.
P: Let me ask you about that because I've had people tell me that the Florida
Supreme Court acted on their own without any brief. I've had lawyers tell me, "Oh
there was a brief filed," and the Supreme Court was responding to that. This is
the first time that they held Katherine Harris from certifying.
P: In other words, they created what one would call the status quo, right?
P: That was based on a brief that was filed?
W: Yes. There was a case that had been filed by Mr. [Al] Gore's attorneys here in
the state of Florida, and that was pending. That's what was really sort of lost in
this barrage of media spin that was being done. There was a particular
gentleman, he was one of the Watergate co-conspirators, Colson I think is his
P: Chuck Colson.
W: Yes. He actually, we discovered, distributed very, very broadly, a statement that
the Court had acted on its own without anything being filed. That was taken and
repeated constantly over the web and elsewhere. That was, of course, an
erroneous statement from a person who, obviously, did not understand what
actually was going on here.
P: I have read that over and over again. In fact, in asking other attorneys, they're
saying, "No, no, that's not true," particularly the Gore attorneys.
W: And the attorneys are correct.
P: I talked to Mitch Berger [attorney for Al Gore in 2000 election] and people like
this, and they said, "Oh, no, we had a brief filed."
W: That was an example of spin. There were people, you know, as soon as that
order was entered on November 17th, [that] was when the spin effort began. I
think that was the most cynical thing that I saw in all of this, realizing that there
were people out there who were completely willing to misinterpret what this Court
had done, and doing so publicly, and repeating it over and over again in an effort
to influence public opinion. Now obviously many of the politicians viewed this not,
primarily, as a legal battle, but as a battle of public opinion. They treated it
accordingly. That's nothing new in American politics, but it certainly was, I think,
the first time this Court had actually ended up in the cross hairs of this kind of
P: What were some of the positive aspects of this experience?
W: I think the most positive aspect was that it showed, for the first time on an
international basis, how important it can be for courts to have a public information
function and to communicate in a timely basis with the rest of the world. This
obviously was an issue of worldwide importance, and if we had simply sat here
and not communicated and stayed inside of our locked building, I think that would
have been a far more damaging image than what was seen at the time. Even
many people who disagreed with what my Court was doing, in terms of the legal
issues, actually e-mailed saying that they greatly appreciated the fact that we
were so open, that we were not trying to hide. We were not concealing our
rulings in the dead of the night. We were not leaving people to guess what had
happened. We were being quite forthright. I think there's a great deal to be said
Florida, of course, is rather unusual in that we have public records laws that are
written into our constitution and are probably among the broadest in the world, in
terms of access. We've learned to live with that. Since the election cases, I've
actually given speeches to state court systems in other states. Many of them are
quite fascinated with what happened because they don't have that degree of
openness in their states. Many of them expressed surprise that it worked so well
in Florida. I have had a number of them who say that they have revisited their
own policies because of what happened. Of course, we did have the famous
episode with the U.S. Supreme Court, where they decided to actually distribute
audio of the arguments immediately after the case was heard, which was
unprecedented for them. Many people attribute that to the pressure that was put
on them because of the Florida comparison.
P: Do you think the United States Supreme Court should do the same as the Florida
W: I think they eventually will. That's something that they will decide in their own
good time. There are arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court that they deal with
cases of a different magnitude, and I think that's something that they do need to
take into account. They deal with Bush v. Gore types of cases all the time. So
that is something that I would certainly want to factor into the equation if I were
the public information officer there because, I can tell you, that's very taxing to
deal with, and you have to have the resources in place. Until you do have those
resources in place, it certainly is not a good idea to try to do what we did here on
essentially a permanent basis.
P: What are the negative aspects to court activities in the sunshine? I understand,
from some of the lawyers I've talked to, there's a bit of grandstanding and people
want to get on television, people want to have their moment in the sun. Do you
think that affects the presentations or the arguments before the Court?
W: I think it's a two-edged sword. I think when attorneys attempt that they take a
risk. The first case that was argued here, we had one of the attorneys who was
arguing his particular case. He was representing then Governor Bush from
Texas. [He] was asked a question by one of our justices about the comparable
Texas statute. He responded that he did not think that was relevant, or words to
that affect. Unfortunately for him, it had actually been argued in the briefs, and he
seemed ignorant of that fact, and he vanished from the scene.
P: He was replaced immediately.
W: He was replaced by Barry Richard. Fame is the goddess that she is reputed to
be, she can turn on you. I saw a lot of people who did not particularly enjoy their
moments of fame in this. I found it very trying, myself, to be suddenly cast in the
role of an instant media celebrity, but I was very cautious. I had seen what had
happened in other venues on this issue, and I, of course, was a journalist myself.
[I] saw people who rose quickly and then fell just as quickly in the public eye.
P: How did you determine access to the hearings? How many journalists would you
let in and on what basis? The same question for attorneys.
W: For the journalists we reserved twenty-eight seats that were to be done on a
lottery basis. When we decided on the lottery, we didn't realize what would
happen because of the press of events going on, because this was a twenty-four,
seven news event. The lottery, essentially, was conducted like this: we would put
a box out on the front steps, or close to it, where reporters would put their
business cards or a scrap of paper with their name and phone number on it. But
the rule was this: by that evening I would, at a certain time, take the box away
and would begin pulling names randomly from the box. The reporter had to be
available at that phone number when I called. If they were not available, then that
created an obvious problem. We had not anticipated the fact that on each
occasion about half of the reporters were unreachable. What I did in that
situation, because we had not anticipated that, is I exercised my judgement and
replaced the half that were missing with people that I thought really needed to be
in the courtroom, such as the major networks, the major Florida networks, and
newspapers and that sort of thing. So I used that to ensure that we had a very
good representation of the media, and that we didn't have people whose sole
claim to journalistic fame was a web page that they operated from their home
P: What about the attorneys?
W: The attorneys, of course, if they argued the cases, there was reserved seating
inside the courtroom. We made a deliberate decision that we were not going to
put folding chairs in the courtroom because of decorum, so we limited the seating
to what would be normal in a routine court argument. There were about a
hundred seats that were left for the public, and by "public" we meant anybody.
We got a disproportionate number of journalists and lawyers who ended up being
the "public" part of that because they stood in line or hired someone to stand in
line for them. In fact, a number of Florida State University fraternity and sorority
members actually made some money by not only serving as runners for these
journalists and others who were here, but also by standing in line and holding
their place for the courtroom seating.
P: Once the hearings take place, what kind of security did you have in the
W: We had a contingent of security officers. Not only our own, but we had also
brought in those from local law enforcement, including the Leon County Sheriff's
Department, Tallahassee Police Department, and the Florida Department of Law
Enforcement. If you look at the photograph, for example, of me making the
announcement on December 8th of the state wide recount, and you count the
number of armed officers that were flanking me on the steps of the capital, there
were about twenty-five of them. We had them here on a constant basis. We had
security at all the entrances to the building, watching the secure parking garages,
and that sort of thing. Of course, because our marshal is a former full colonel in
the Army, we had full remote perimeter surveillance already around the building,
and our officers could watch what was going on outside.
P: How were you treated by the media?
W: I was treated very well. I was quite surprised. There were only two episodes that I
had that I consider to be beyond the pale with journalists. One was a journalist
with a major New York publication who had come in from out of town and was
acting like this was still New York City. He managed to get hold of the names of
some of our staff attorneys and others who work for the justices, and was calling
them at their homes. That's just not acceptable behavior. Our press corps here
knows that. So I called up the local bureau chief who had to live with me and told
her about this. She had him call me, and we had a talk and I explained it to him. I
said, "Listen, you know, if these staff members answered your questions, they're
going to be fired. So, don't even try it. What you're doing is rude." The other
episode occurred with one of the New York City tabloids that had sent a reporter
here who did not get a seat in one of the lotteries. Basically, in a sort of veiled
way, he threatened to do an expose on me. So I was contemplating for a while
there telling my mother not to go to the grocery store for a few weeks. But, of
course, the whole matter died and he completely lost interest in me, which I was
quite glad of.
P: What was your assessment of the media's treatment of the Florida Supreme
W: The big problem with a story like this, when you have a state supreme court that
is not well-known outside of its state, is the media comes in and they instantly, in
a very brief period of time, want to know who these people are. The danger there
is in stereotyping, and I think that's exactly what happened with the Court. It's
probably unavoidable, given this type of news story, [and] given the fact that
these justices were not well-known outside of Florida. But they were stereotyped
based on the governors that had appointed them [and] stereotyped based on
their political affiliations. Even though, with many of the political affiliations, I
didn't even know their political affiliations until they were being reported here in
P: The statement that this was the Dexter Douglass court, that he had influenced
[Governor Lawton] Chiles and other governors to appoint liberal Democrats.
W: Exactly, and Jim Baker [spokesman for Bush in Florida 2000 election
controversy; U.S. Secretary of State, 1989-1992] actually gave a press
conference in which he seemed to suggest that the Court had essentially been
appointed by Dexter Douglass. I had a chance to speak with Dexter about that.
He told me that that was one way of getting him moved to the second chair
because it created an appearance of a conflict of interest that Dexter Douglass
was unwilling to live with because of what it would have done to the Court.
P: As a matter of fact, he did move his place in the courtroom, he said.
W: To the second chair.
W: Although Dexter also did say that after that statement was announced, all of a
sudden he started getting, in the months after that, a lot of requests for people
who wanted to take their cases to the Florida Supreme Court and wanted him.
P: How do you think the media treated the state of Florida in general?
W: I think they treated the state as well as could be expected in this kind of situation.
I do know that when they came here, they were awed by the openness because
we had large contingents from the Washington and New York areas who had
never dealt with this kind of openness. For example, when the big [television]
networks first showed up here, I instantly was bombarded with fax letters from
their attorneys at high flying law firms in New York City saying, "We demand
access to the video, we demand access to your documents." I just called them
back and said, "Listen, you don't have to demand anything, they're public record.
We have our own video feed, our satellite feed, and you're welcome to downlink
it if you want to." Many of them refused to believe me. I had to actually arrange
for a meeting with the FSU [Florida State University] communications people and
the five big networks in our courtroom. We went in and showed them the
cameras, went over how it operated, and tried to allay some of their concerns.
You know we routinely broadcast via satellite. We have our own satellite
transponder here in Florida that we use, and it can be down-linked anywhere in
North America. They were so worried that that transponder wouldn't work that the
five networks set up an alternate transponder of their own as a backup, just in
case. Although, by the time we got to the second case, they no longer were
doing that because it worked well enough.
P: Is this the only state supreme court that operates this much in the open?
W: I wouldn't say that because there are others that, I know, webcast. I know
Washington state also broadcasts theirs on their version of C-SPAN. We also
have a version like that here in Florida called the Florida Channel [which is]
operated by Florida State University. But in terms, of course, of being seen in a
very visible case, we were certainly the one. To this date, the two cases in Bush
v. Gore that were argued here remain the only appellant arguments that had
been broadcast by all the major networks from beginning to end.
P: You did not give out any specific information about the deliberations or the
arguments or the activities of the justices, is that correct?
W: As they affected opinions, that's correct, because that's confidential under our
rules. I also make it a point to not even involve myself in those matters so that I
literally know nothing about them.
P: Could you give me some sense of what a typical day would be in the middle of all
this, say between November 17th and December 8th? What time would you get
here? How late would you work?
W: Well, there really was no typical day because so much depended on what was
going to be done. The attention that was paid to the November 17th order really
surprised us. It's easy in hindsight to say, "Well, you shouldn't have been
surprised by that." But at the time, we didn't realize how big it was going to
become, the two big and very difficult cases that would ultimately head our way.
As a result of what happened on November 17th, when we began to realize that
we were under an enormous media microscope, we began changing what we
were doing virtually on a daily basis to try and continue to meet the media
demand. We were constantly improving on what we were doing. We began, for
instance, trying to let reporters come in a few at a time at the beginning to pick up
documents. By the end of it, we had gone to a system where we had tables set
up at the three doors at the front entrance of the building. The reporters would
mill in one door, go past the table, pick up the documents, and go out the other
door. So we had an assembly line system at the end of it because what we were
doing at the beginning didn't work very well. In the beginning I was initially
making statements individually to reporters. By the end of it we were doing mass
briefings. By December 8th, the pool cameras were outside, and I actually had a
remote audio mike hooked up to my tie before I walked out to make the
statement. [That was] after I had extracted from, I believe it was, NBC, that was
the pool camera that day, the promise that they would not turn the microphone
on until I reached the podium, and as soon as I turned away from the podium
they would turn the microphone off.
P: But you must have been here, literally, twenty hours a day.
W: It was quite lengthy at times because we often did not know exactly when
opinions would be released and when I would be making the announcements. So
there were some days when I would arrive at like five in the morning, just in case
we had to make an announcement at eight in the morning. There were days
when I would sit around and the times would pass that we thought we were going
to be making announcements. We, of course, had not told the press about these
tentative dates or times. So then, it might be late in the evening. For example, the
first major opinion was not announced until nine o'clock in the evening right
[End of side Al]
P: Can you describe the attitudes of the justices during this time? Were they tense?
Were they overworked? How would you describe the environment in which in
W: Well, they were working constantly, and so were their staffs. I made a point of
getting sleep every night because I saw too many exhausted people on television
who were making fools of themselves. But for those of us in the building who did
not have to have that public role, there were some of them that put in twenty-four
hour days doing this work. So what I saw were people who had a tremendous
burden on their shoulders, and they knew it. [They had] a tremendous amount of
work to do in a very short period of time because of the deadlines that were
imposed by the various laws, federal and state.
P: It must have been extremely difficult to make decisions in two days when they
would normally have two months to deliberate. How did they organize their staffs
to provide the information that they needed to make their decisions?
W: Well, there is a precedent for this kind of expediting of opinions, and that is when
we have death warrants pending in the state of Florida. We have very tight
deadlines for those. So most of our staff had been through those kinds of
experiences. They simply adapted that model to this, where you're going to have
to work a tremendous amount of time, and labor would have to be divided up into
ways that we might not normally do. You might have interns, for instance, going
through the record and tabbing particular areas that needed special attention.
Drafts being done by different offices and circulating. It would be a much more
speeded up process, but not one that is unheard of here at the Court.
P: Could you give me some idea of how much time they would spend individually
preparing and how much of this time they would spend actually deliberating as a
W: That again, I don't really know for sure. I know it was a tremendous amount of
time. But I was so busy with other matters, I did not have much time to pay
attention to exactly what amounts of time they were putting into their various
roles. My phone was ringing, literally, constantly. In fact, I reached the point that
my regular phone line became just unusable. Literally, it would stop ringing, you'd
pick up the phone and there would be somebody else on the line. We tried
having a secretary answer it for awhile, but that quickly became pointless. A lot of
[the calls] were [from] angry people or people who wanted to praise the Court for
the opinions it was doing, which are things that are fine and good, but there was
a tremendous amount of work to be done. I had to actually have a separate line
put in for the news media to use to reach me. So I was very, very busy dealing
with the media aspects of it.
P: How many staff members would each justice have to help them with all of their
W: We recently moved to them having three, and I'm not sure exactly when that
change occurred. I'm trying to think. I'm unsure whether we were still working
under the two staff/ attorney or three staff/ attorney [system] at the time. I believe
it was two, but I'm just not sure about that. But, of course, they also had interns
who were working here from law schools as well.
P: But if that's all the help they had under these conditions, obviously they had to do
the major amount of work themselves.
W: Right. We also have a central staff of attorneys though, and those were used
very heavily for this as well.
P: How many would you have in that central staff?
W: That was about seven or eight at the time, I believe.
P: They worked for the Court as a whole?
W: Right, under a central staff director. They can be brought in on an as needed
P: Let me talk to you a little bit about some of the Court's decisions. When the Court
barred Katherine Harris from certification, they stated, "It is not the intent of the
Court to stop the counting and conveying the results of absentee ballots." Why
do you think they specifically made that statement?
W: That again, I wasn't privy to what was going on in the conference, so I just don't
know the answer.
P: Okay. What would be your view of that? Was it just to make clear that they didn't
want the recount to stop although they were stopping the certification?
W: Again, I wouldn't know that. I made a point throughout all of this of declining to try
and interpret the legal issues involved.
P: One of things that comes into play much later is in the seven to zero decision.
They pick November 26th as the date for the recount to be completed. In
retrospect, do we have any knowledge as to why that date was chosen?
W: There was an opinion that was issued, after vice-president Gore conceded, by
the Court in which they clarified that. I would refer you to that.
P: Okay. This was after the remand from the U.S. Supreme Court. Is that correct?
P: What was it like as you were waiting for this four to three decision? Which was
December 8th right? Did you have any sense of either when they would
complete their deliberations or what the outcome would be?
W: I knew, the day before, that I was going to be making an announcement that
there would be a statewide recount. I did not know the exact vote at the time, or
any of the other details, but over that night I knew. I came in early the next
morning just in case it was released on that day in the morning. It was not
released until four [p.m.], when I made the announcement. So during that
process, of course, I was waiting for them to come up with the final version of the
P: Although they had, in essence, decided for a recount. They just hadn't made all
the specific statements that would be part of that decision. Is that correct?
P: Were you nervous when you were making that announcement?
P: What was the reaction of the crowd once you said four-three?
W: There was a big moan that went up. Although I had a lot of people in the press
corps tell me that it was them because they were now afraid they were going to
have this case continuing on until the New Year. It was very unusual, particularly
that afternoon. All during this the police officers had been suggesting that I
needed to wear a bullet proof vest. That night, and that afternoon in particular,
they were more adamant because the crowd was quite restless outside. It was a
very large crowd. There were police snipers on the roofs of nearby buildings,
although I didn't know about that at the time, fortunately. But the fact that they
wanted to put a bullet proof vest on me really rattled me in a way that is hard to
describe. [It was a] very strange episode in my life, that afternoon. We gave thirty
minutes warning before we announced the result of opinions. That was so that all
the reporters could be in place. The networks would be able to break into
whatever their programming was, so that everybody had a fair shot, that was the
main reason. We didn't want to leave anybody out. We didn't want to give
anybody a scoop, an unfair advantage, over any other press. That was the main
reason we were doing that.
P: Plus you understood that this was a monumental decision, and that everybody in
the world was going to want to have this opinion.
W: Right. So I took the opinion, drafted a statement, and it was edited and approved
by the majority of the Court in the four-three decision. It mentioned simply who
had dissented, of course. Then I went and took my place waiting near the silver
doors at the front of the building. It was very surreal then because there were the
police officers there, and there was a large crowd outside. I could actually see
through a crack in the door and these huge crowds that were gathering. They
had the very bright lights that were set up for the announcement because the
shadows were getting long at that point of the day. I remember that there was a
press conference going on by one of the Republican senators, [he] had been the
majority leader. His name has completely slipped my mind. Trent Lott. Trent Lott
was giving a press conference, I believe, from someplace in Texas, and we
reached the point where it was four o'clock. I was watching this television set that
was inside the guard station right beside the door as the networks broke into
Trent Lott's press conference to announce that I was about to walk out.
We had a system worked out where, one minute before I went out, a
representative of the Florida Association of Broadcasters would walk out. That
was the signal, because he was well known by all the media, that there was one
minute coming up. That was when they would break in. They would say we have
to break into programming or whatever. Then I walked out to this enormous
crowd. The lights were fortunately rather blinding, so I couldn't really get a good
feel for the crowds. When I first began my statement something fell somewhere,
some equipment or something, and, if you look at the video, I actually flinched. I
was thinking that this was the bullet shot and why had I not worn the bullet proof
vest. Although I had deliberately decided not to wear a vest because it would
have been visible, and because that would have become a news story all by
itself. Virtually everything I had done had become a news story by that point in
P: You see yourself as representing the Court, therefore you do not want attention
drawn to you personally.
W: Exactly. On top of that as well, if any cuckoo had not thought of shooting me, I
did not want him to have that thought placed in his head by the news media. It
was just a whole issue I did not want to get into. I'd already had the media
calling, asking questions about the guards that were with me whenever I went out
in public. So anyway, I went out and I read the statement very quickly, turned
away, and went back inside the doors. It was really a very short period of time. It
was a short statement. But, of course, everything went crazy after that. The press
had been predicting that there would be no state-wide recount, that the election
would be over, and that Al Gore would concede by that evening.
P: Some of them were actually packing up to go home.
W: Yes, they were. As a result of these false predictions, I think they portrayed the
decision of the Court as a surprise decision, which drew all the more attention to
P: I'd read some place that when you made the announcement there was an
audible gasp from the crowd. Were you aware of that? I can understand the
press people moaning because they thought they had another two or three days
W: Well, I couldn't hear everything that was being said, of course. I heard the moan
because a moan is more audible from where I was. We had a public address
system out there. We had had to install it because the people couldn't hear, and
it was echoing among the buildings. So there was this echo going back and forth,
although my microphone was a close proximity microphone that was on my tie.
But what I was hearing was very different from what people were hearing on
television. So I really couldn't hear a lot of what was going on. There were
hecklers, which you didn't really hear on television as well, although I could
certainly hear them. [It was] the only time in my life I've ever dealt with hecklers.
So it was really simply a matter of reading the statement with as much dignity as
I could and turning around and leaving. We had, fortunately, at that point, we had
gradually been moving the podium up the steps so that it was immediately in
front of the doors. So, literally, when I turned around, those doors were open, and
I was gone. Nobody had a chance to yell out, "I have a question" or "Wait," or the
things you hear them do with the president or somebody else in a more public
P: Did you answer questions on previous announcements?
W: I did Q and A's only when there were procedural matters that required them.
Typically, they would happen because we had arguments coming up, and we
were having to prep the media about the when and where of it, how the lottery
would be conducted, the deadlines for the lottery, and the fact that we had to be
able to reach them.
P: Limited to procedural issues.
W: Procedural issues. But, of course, during all of that, whenever you open anything
up for Q and A, you're going to get questions about everything, including the
legal issues. I've worked here long enough that I know on legal issues, I simply
tell them, "I can't address legal issues, you really need to address that to the
attorneys in the case or legal experts."
P: Once you made that announcement, was the full decision already on the
W: Yes. It was posted by another one of our web masters while I was out there.
P: So immediately upon that announcement, we start getting from the press initial
responses, which is, again, highly unusual in terms of the way the U.S. Supreme
W: Well, and of course, the statements that I was reading were bottom lines of what
the opinion held. That also was rather unusual. There are a number of state
courts that for years now have done synopses of opinions on the day that they
release them. We had never actually done that, but we decided, in this particular
instance, that not only did we have to have the synopsis, but it had to be
delivered orally at a mass briefing so that we were not favoring one media
organization over another. Everybody had an equal shot at it.
P: The justices decided that?
W: On my recommendation, yes. I do think that's one reason why the media treated
us as well as they did, because we knew very well what their needs were. The
fact that if you start distributing paper copies to a long line of reporters, and that's
the only means of them finding out what's happening, somebody's going to get
the story first, and somebody's going to get the story last. And the person who
gets the story last is not going to be happy.
P: Were you surprised that the United States Supreme Court took the case? Took
W: The first case I was surprised. I was not surprised at the second case.
P: You understood, as most people did with the initial remand, that the five-four
decision then was pretty strong in favor of Bush's argument, at least from
[Justice] Scalia's statements.
W: Well, my personal opinion about that was that the first opinion that the U.S.
Supreme Court issued in the Bush v. Gore changed the landscape of the law.
From then on, this had ceased to be what looked like an exclusively state law
P: What's your opinion of Bush v. Gore?
W: The U.S. Supreme Court opinion?
W: I think many people agree that the majority opinion itself is a flawed analysis. I
can understand that in the time constraints they were working under. It was
something of a surprise, I think, to everybody. But the greatest surprise of all, to
me, was when the stay order was issued. That was something that I never in a
million years thought would happen. After the stay order, in particularly the
language of [Justice] Scalia, I think it became less of a surprise what the U.S.
Supreme Court subsequently did in its opinion.
P: Were you surprised that the Rehnquist [U.S. Supreme] Court made a decision
based on the Fourteenth Amendment? Certainly, that was unusual reasoning for
W: Yes. I think a lot of people were surprised mainly because that issue had been
mentioned only in passing here at the state level, and it became the major
feature of the case at that level. That's very unusual.
P: Well, in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which is a very conservative court,
eight to four voted against it and had no mention of the Fourteenth Amendment
whatsoever. In fact Ted Olsen [Bush's lead attorney in Bush v. Gore], I think in
the beginning, the very first appeal, had mentioned it. Then it sort of disappears,
does it not?
P: Until you get the final decision. Some people have argued that this was, by the
United States Supreme Court, a "partisan political decision." How would you
respond to that?
W: I have no reason to believe that. The fact that we had courts that were so evenly
split at both levels tells me that this is an issue about which reasonable people
could differ. In the law that is an important point. There was a lot of partisan
sentiment in the public that reminded me a great deal of how people feel about
their football teams. That's fine and good. Politics in some ways is a lot like
football. But when you get down to legal issues that kind of analogy really doesn't
apply. The question on disputed legal matters is whether reasonable people
could differ. I think it's quite clear, at both levels, that that was the case. In that
sense, I would not at all be comfortable saying that either the opinions of this
court, or the U.S. Supreme Court, were partisan. I just don't see that.
P: When we look at the five-four Bush v. Gore decision, there are some people,
Alan Dershowitz [attorney and author] is one, who said that that destroyed the
credibility of the United States Supreme Court. Is that a fair statement?
W: At the time it may have seemed that way to some. I think that as time has passed
that's not proven to be the case. There are some people, I know, who will never
forget Bush v. Gore because they, in their own minds, view it as a betrayal. But
there are others who feel very strongly in the other direction. I think, ultimately,
you'll probably see history balance that out. There were comparisons of this case
with Dred Scott [1857, Scott and his wife, both slaves, sued for their freedom and
were denied it by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court held that Scott, because
he was a slave, was not a citizen and could not bring suit in federal court] and
there's no way to compare this with the magnitude of a Dred Scott. Dred Scott
was an abomination. I cannot call Bush v. Gore an abomination.
P: What impact did it have on the credibility of the Florida Supreme Court? You
might remember that Jim Baker, after the four to three decision, had a lot of very
strong, very negative comments about the Florida Supreme Court, as did other
politicians. Do you think that, two years after the fact, now that it's sort of died
down, has had very little long term impact on the status of the Florida Supreme
W: It definitely has died down. You have to keep in mind that Jim Baker was not
acting as an attorney in all of this, he was acting as a politician. He was engaging
in active spin, and he was really quite the master of it. The Republicans, I must
give them credit, are much better at that than the Democrats were. Jim Baker
was playing to a public audience. The exaggerations he made about Dexter
Douglass's influence over the Court are just one example of the kind of thing that
they were doing for their own political ends. And, yes, they did succeed in getting
Dexter Douglass essentially removed from arguing the case based on this public
perception of a conflict of interest they had created. That's something that's been
done in American politics for a long time. It's a rather cynical thing in some ways,
but it's the reality of politics. Of course, [we] operate very differently, but in this
case we actually were operating simultaneously in a legal and a political arena,
whether we liked it or not. But I think that the vast majority of Americans realize
spin when they see it, maybe not at the time it's being spun, but, over the long
term, I think they do.
P: Judge Richard Posner, in his book called Breaking the Deadlock, said that the
U.S. Supreme Court decision was a pragmatic one, but not necessarily a legal
one. What he argued was that it saved the country from a constitutional crisis. Do
you think there would have been a crisis had not the U.S. Supreme Court
W: I think if it had not been resolved at the state level, which was still a possibility
even before the U.S. Supreme Court entered its stay, I think that it would have
been thrown into the House of Representatives, as it has happened earlier in our
history. I don't view that as a constitutional crisis. It's happened before.
P: Well, there was a real possibility there might have been two sets of electors
coming out of the state of Florida had the recount put Gore in the lead.
W: That happened in 1876 with Hayes and Tilden. That was not unprecedented.
P: But there is a constitutional process to deal with such a circumstance.
P: When you look back at this, how has this impacted your life?
W: Well, it put me on the speaking circuit, which I never expected. I'm less in
demand now than I was, but I'm still giving speeches. I just got back from New
York speaking at the Nine Eleven [short for September 11, 2001, when foreign
terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in
Washington D.C.] summit on crisis communications. So quite a surprise to me,
the election cases turned me into something of a national expert on crisis
communications, using the world wide web, and broadcasting. I've also given a
lot of speeches, essentially the same version of the same speech, which is just a
humorous recount of the recounts, when I talk about the really funny things that
happened here at the Court during my period as the spokesman for the Court
during all of this.
I'll give you just one of many examples. After the U.S. Supreme Court entered its
stay order, they also ordered us to forthwith transmit the record to Washington
D.C., which meant, essentially, we had one day to get it up there. The Chief
Justice [Charles Wells] had told me that I would have to try to requisition one of
the state aircraft, which the chief justice can do. Unfortunately, there were
Christmas parties all that evening whenever this all came about after the order.
There were several of us manning the phones late into the night trying to find the
pilots of the state aircraft. I had been on a plane with the guy who used to be the
head of the agency that ran the air pool. [I] called him at home, and he was
home. I said, "I know you're not the head of this agency anymore, but we're really
desperate here. We have to get the record to Washington D.C., and we need the
state aircraft." He finally tracked down one of his pilots, one of his former
employees, who called me on my cell phone. We worked out the arrangements. I
had him talk with the clerk of court, who was going to be taking the record up to
Washington. We hung up and then the clerk turned around to me immediately
and said, "Oh, my God." I said, "What?" He said, "I forgot to ask the pilot's name.
Did you get it?" I said, "Well, I didn't ask him." So I said, "Well, wait a minute. My
cell phone records phone numbers of incoming phone calls, so I'll just redial it."
So I redialed it, and someone said "Hello." I said, "This is Craig Waters at the
Florida Supreme Court. I am really sorry. We were just talking with you about
piloting a plane for us to Washington tomorrow, and we forgot to ask your name."
There was this pause, and he said, "Jeb Bush." I said, "Governor?" He said,
"Yes?" I said, "Well, someone just called me from this phone." He said, "Well, this
is my personal line." Then he said, "Well, I'm having a party here for some FDLE
[Florida Department of Law Enforcement] agents, let me see if I can find whoever
it was who called." So he put me on hold and went around the party. [He] came
back and said, "Craig, I can't find whoever it was. They must have already left,
and I swear it wasn't me." I said, "Well, Governor, believe me, I trust you
implicitly." So that's how I ended up on the phone with Jeb Bush right before the
big U.S. Supreme Court case.
P: Did you ever find your pilot?
W: Yes, we did find the pilot. And we did get the transcripts up to Washington amid
much media speculation. They were being flown on a Sunday, which is a slow
news day, so that was the only news in town. We had lots of rumors going
around about where the ballots were. We literally had media organizations
scouring Interstate 95 up the east coast trying to find any Florida Highway Patrol
trooper cars that might be carrying those disputed Miami ballots, when they
actually were still here in this building.
P: Those were the 9,000 ballots.
W: Right, from Miami-Dade. Unfortunately, my chief justice was in church that
Sunday morning, and I couldn't reach him for permission to disclose the location
of the ballots, which was considered a secret at the time due to security
concerns.. So finally, as soon as he got out of church, he turned his cell phone
on. I got through to him and ran back up here to the court and announced to a
huge throng that had gathered where the ballots were. Reporters left, and that
was the end of the day's excitement.
P: Well, all they did was find out where they were. They couldn't examine them. It
wasn't much of a benefit.
W: Although we had a large number of public records requests for access to the
ballots, of course. What we did though, we could not release them while the case
was still pending because they were relevant to matters before the Court.
Immediately after the cases were disposed of, we transmitted them forthwith
back to the trial courts where the public records requests were handled.
P: And they were never actually counted?
W: I believe some of the media organizations actually got access in the sense that
someone on the staff of the supervisors would let them view it. They couldn't
touch the ballots.
P: But they were never counted by either the courts or a canvassing board.
W: No. They, of course, started the recounts on that Saturday, but the U.S. Supreme
Court stayed it.
P: Tell me another humorous story.
W: Well, perhaps the craziest episode that happened, in terms of just me, was right
before Thanksgiving. Before the opinion came out, we had a lot of reporters who
were very concerned that they were going to have to spend the entire
Thanksgiving holiday standing outside our building. This was during a Q and A.
They were asking about it, and I was going on, and they kept asking me that
same question over and over, every way they could think of wording it. I kept
trying. I'd say, "Listen, we will let you know. When you can go home we're going
to tell you that we're putting a lid on the day," which is the Washington D.C. term
for nothing more is going to happen, end of day. But they still seemed reluctant to
believe me. At the very end of it, just spontaneously without me even thinking
about it, I said, "Listen, I have a personal interest in this too because I have
already R.S.V.P.'ed for my Aunt Ethel's family reunion in Elberta, Alabama. She's
going to be very upset if I don't make it." Well, I didn't think anything of it at the
time, but when I got back into my office I had dozens of calls coming in from
people about my Aunt Ethel. The BBC wanted to actually go to the family
reunion. The Miami-Herald published her Thanksgiving menu in its editions. She
was mentioned in the New York Times. She was mentioned on "Good Morning
America [ABC television morning show]." There were TV organizations in her
area that literally hunted her down to get an interview. This is one of those
examples of how, in a twenty-four, seven news event, something like that [can
happen], particularly if it happens to be themed for the holiday.
P: Or a slow news day, right?
W: Right, or a slow news day, [it] can be turned into a major news item.
P: How did this affect you mentally and physically?
W: I did not realize how exhausted I was until it was all over. You know, you work
on adrenaline for awhile. You just don't feel the pain or the exhaustion or
whatever because you're just constantly going. But the night that Al Gore
conceded, there was a going away party at one of the local establishments here.
All the major news organizations were there. I actually went to it. We were up
late, of course, and I got up the next day, and I really began to feel it. Of course,
we still had a few matters to be disposed of, and I was dreading going out on the
steps and making the announcements. But that day, on the fourteenth, when we
got out there and we went out on the steps, there was no one there. They were
all gone. They were packing up, the tents were being torn down. The story was
over. But that was when I began to really feel it. Fortunately, I had already
arranged with some family and friends to stay at a condo on Perdido Island near
Pensacola. We stayed there for a good part of the holidays. I was sort of out of
the way most of the time. Although, when we did go out in public I was being
noticed. So I had a chance to relax from that. Then, fortunately, during the case, I
did not come down with what they were calling the chad crud, which many of the
reporters got because of the weather that they were standing out in. I finally
came down with that in January and was out of commission for a week with that,
mainly because of just being so tired and then caught the infection.
P: Are you glad you had a chance to participate in such a momentous event?
W: I'm glad in a lot of ways, but, again, it's one of those events that you are far more
glad to have in your past than in your future. I certainly felt, when I first began to
realize even an inkling of what was coming my way, a tremendous weight. I've
had a number of my counterparts at different state courts and federal courts ask
about this. I keep telling them that, "Yes, it's great to have the success behind
you, but when you're living with it, it's very difficult." I was coming into the office
everyday, literally knowing that there were a thousand ways to fail and that there
were millions of people watching it live. I can't tell you the kind of pressure you
feel with that. There were times when my hands were shaking, and I was trying
my best to keep that from being viewed. The podium served very well in hiding a
lot of the body language. [There were] a lot of other episodes like that that the
public never really saw. It is very difficult to live through something like that. I
think I probably did about as good a job as I could. There certainly were things
that I would have done differently in retrospect, but I was very fortunate that I did
not make any major bloopers. There were other funny episodes, but nothing that
made anybody look bad or made the Court look bad.
P: Is there anything we haven't talked about that you would like to talk about and
W: I did have one interesting episode that happened after this was all over. There
were a number of people that were writing books about the election cases, and a
lot of people were urging me to write a book. Of course, people who did write
books, ultimately, they were knocked off the bestseller list by the events of
September 11th, when the 2000 election suddenly came to be viewed as very
stale news, and justifiably so. But I did have one Los Angeles literary agent who
had contacted me, someone I had known for a number of years in another
context, to suggest that I could make a lot of money if I wrote a book, especially,
he suggested, one that could confirm that there was a conspiracy of some kind.
Basically a kiss-and-tell book. I told him that, no, nothing like that happened. So, I
have no book to write.
P: Well, on that note, I want to thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.
[End of the interview.]