THE ROOTS OF the Supreme Court stay of the Florida recount, the sprouts that have amassed into the vines that now strangle democracy, began their creeping, creepy invasion long ago.
They grew strong when the pruners missed William Rehnquist. Rehnquist became the chief justice of the land in 1986 despite having owned two homes, one in suburban Phoenix and one in Vermont, that had covenants against selling to Jews and people of color.
The man who is supposed to know every detail of the law said, ''I simply can't answer whether I read through the deed or not. While very offensive, it has no legal effect.''
Rehnquist became chief justice despite being the only dissenting judge in an 8-1 decision in 1983 that upheld federal policies that denied tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University, which bans interracial dating. Bob Jones University was where Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush spoke this year to cement his image with right-wing conservatives.
Rehnquist became chief justice even though he was accused - in the most delicious irony yet of this disputed presidential election - of behavior that is eerily close to that which may have bedeviled African-American voters in Florida.
Democratic Party workers in Arizona testified in 1986 that in the early 1960s, then Republican operative Rehnquist harassed people of color in Phoenix with literacy tests at the polls.
Sydney Smith, a psychologist, said that Rehnquist once saw two African-American voters in line, walked up to them, held up a white card and said, ''You don't know how to read, do you? You don't belong in this line, and you should leave.''
Rehnquist denied the charges, although the accusations were not out of line with his politics at the time. In 1964, he testified as a public citizen against a public accommodations ordinance for Phoenix. Rehnquist later said desegregation would leave the ''unwanted customer and the disliked proprietor ... glowering at one another across the lunch counter. It is, I believe, impossible to justify the sacrifice of even a portion of our historic individual freedom for a purpose such as this.''
In 1971, Rehnquist was confirmed to the Nixon-era court, saying, ''I would not feel the same way today about it as I did then.'' In 1986 the Reagan-era Senate overlooked Phoenix, the covenant, and Bob Jones to confirm him as chief justice.
Since then, the vines have grown stronger. Antonin Scalia joined the court in 1986. In a 1979 law review article, Scalia blasted affirmative action. Ignoring the nation's history and utterly bereft of solutions as to how white racism was to be squelched, Scalia called affirmative action ''a queer sort of bigotry.'' He called it ''the most evil fruit of a fundamentally bad seed. From racist principles flow racist results.''
The vines grew stronger still. Clarence Thomas, appointed to the court by candidate Bush's father, has crudely shown how he would help transform the court from ardent protector of the underdog to maintenance workers for the overlords. In a dissent, Thomas and Scalia wrote that beatings of prison inmates was not cruel and unusual punishment.
Thomas, who also opposes affirmative action and has blasted the NAACP, is so far to the right that David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, once said, ''If he's for real and if he believes what he says, I think he would make a great Supreme Court justice.'' Duke must be laughing as Thomas has now sat through two of the nation's most historic court hearings on the Florida recount without asking a single question. Thomas is not the spook who sat by the door. He is the door.
With the legitimacy conferred by their black robes, those three and oft-allies Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy have made the court a tow-truck company that, car by car, is plucking clean one side of the street while leaving the other side, the right side, untouched. Affirmative action is barely alive; the Boy Scouts can ban gay members; school vouchers are nearly legit; and battered women cannot sue in federal court.
With a tow company like that, with a maintenance crew that makes sure that the elevators on the right move more quickly to the penthouse, one would almost have to be crazy to hope for fairness on such puny issues as democracy, puny because democracy in this case means counting votes in counties with lots of black people.
By stopping the recount, the vines of the Supreme Court are now in the ballot box. Barring a shocking resumption of the recount, it is on its way to choking democracy into a coma.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company