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Justices defend handling of Florida election case

Justice Kennedy
Justice Kennedy: "Sometimes it is enhance your prestige by not exercising your responsibility, but that's not been the tradition of the court."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Supreme Court justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas told a congressional panel Thursday that it was the court's responsibility to decide last year's presidential election dispute in Florida.

The court's 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore December 12 halted a Florida recount sought by Democrat Al Gore and in effect handed the presidency to Republican George W. Bush.

The justices testified at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the court's budget.

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Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-New York) asked the justices about the controversial ruling, saying the court "went and broke my heart by getting involved in a political decision."

Kennedy said the court is the only branch of government that must give reasons for its actions.

"Justice Thomas and I and our colleagues will be judged not by what we say after the fact in order to embellish our opinions or detract from what some of our collegues say, we will be judged by what we put in our appellate reports. That's the dynamic of the law," Kennedy said.

He said the court's power and prestige are built on trust.

"My colleagues and I want to be the most trusted people in America," Kennedy said. "How do you instill that trust? Over time you build up a deposit, a reservoir, a storehouse of trust. When we make a difficult decision in many areas -- and this was not the most difficult decision the court has made -- for many of us, you draw down on that capital of trust."

Kennedy pointed out that the justices did not file the lawsuit that brought the dispute to court.

"It involved a constitutional issue of the gravest importance decided 4-3 by a state court on a federal issue that it was our responsibility to take the case," Kennedy said. "Sometimes it is easy, so it seems, to enhance your prestige by not exercising your responsibility, but that's not been the tradition of our court."

He said that seven justices agreed that allowing manual recounts only in selected Florida counties violated the Constitution's equal protection clause, but they disagreed on the remedy. The decision blocked a statewide hand count of ballots because the tally could not have been finished in time for Florida to meet the deadline for selecting electors to the Electoral College.

Kennedy said disagreements among the justices are expected in the difficult questions the court often hears.

"In the European Court of Justice, there are no dissents and the European judges say, 'How can you do this, how can you have a system where you criticize each other? Isn't this bad for the institution?' We say no, it's good for the institution. We want to make it clear by our dynamic and our discipline and our tradition and by our dissenting opinions and by reasons that the issues we decide are very difficult ones."

Thomas said he would have preferred not to have gotten involved in the case, and that if he had wanted to be in politics, he knew where to go.

"If there was a way, and I only speak for myself, to have avoided getting involved in that very difficult decision and simultaneously living up to my oath, I would have done it," Thomas said.

Thomas and Kennedy also discussed plans to update the court's computer systems and replace the electrical, air conditioning and other systems in the Supreme Court building, which has not been remodeled in 65 years.

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