``There is no legal impediment to the recounts continuing,'' the court said in a case brought by Palm Beach County. Within minutes, county officials announced they would join adjacent Broward County in reviewing hundreds of thousands of ballots by hand.
The Palm Beach count began Thursday evening. A state judge was to decide as early as Friday whether to overturn the Republican secretary of state's decision to reject any further recount totals from Democratic controlled counties.
In the overtime campaign between Bush and Al Gore, the ruling was a victory for the vice president, who had pressed for manual recounts in four counties in hopes of overturning the Texas governor's 300-vote lead. About 2,600 overseas absentee ballots remain to be counted, but so far there is no dispute about them.
``The Supreme Court's clear and unambiguous ruling that the counties are authorized to proceed with a manual recount is a victory for everyone who wants to see the votes counted clearly and fairly here in Florida,'' Gore campaign chairman William Daley said.
Republicans called the decision minor.
``The one-paragraph, interim order of the Florida Supreme Court has just been presented to you as the best thing since night baseball,'' said Bush's recount manager, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. He said, in fact, the order ``does nothing more than preserve the status quo.''
Bush running mate Dick Cheney said the state's official count and recount showed Bush was the winner - with the overseas absentees still to come - and barring any change he expected Secretary of State Katherine Harris to declare Bush the winner on Saturday.
Cheney said in an interview with Fox News Channel that recounts by hand do not give a more accurate result. ``It is no longer really counting, it is manipulation,'' he said.
The seven-member Florida court, all chosen by Democratic governors, issued its unanimous order as Bush lawyers looked to a federal appeals court in Atlanta to stop the recounts altogether.
In another county, Miami-Dade, officials said they would meet Friday to decide whether to proceed.
Republicans, meanwhile, released federal court affidavits from at least five witnesses who contend they watched earlier hand recounts in Palm Beach County this week and observed irregularities and possible ballot tampering.
``I personally observed Canvassing Board counters 'twisting' and otherwise manipulating the paper ballots in an attempt to dislodge chads from the ballots themselves,'' Mark P. Klimek, an observer of the Palm Beach County hand recount, wrote in an affidavit.
As for the state Supreme Court ruling, Judge Charles Burton, a member of the Palm Beach County canavassing board, said it did not appear to cover the underlying question of whether the results of the handcounts must be rolled into the official vote totals.
``I would imagine that's going to be the next round of litigation,'' he said.
The issue has been simmering for several days but was given new urgency by Harris' decision that ballots recounted after last Tuesday would not matter. Democrats urged the justices to rule quickly because counties didn't know if they should keep counting.
Gore's chief lawyer, David Boies, interpreted the ruling as a signal to Harris that she shouldn't ignore the late tallies.
``I think it's very unlikely that the Florida Supreme Court would have directed that these counts go forward if all they meant to do was preserve these votes for history,'' Boies said.
Separately, a state judge heard Gore's argument Thursday that Harris ought to count the late tallies in her final total. That final total will determine which candidate captures Florida's 25 Electoral College votes and thus, almost certainly, the White House.
Lewis had ruled earlier in the week that while Harris could enforce the state's one-week deadline for filing vote tallies, she had flexibility in deciding whether some counties might need more time.
Harris contributed to delays in getting the counts done, and then punished the counties for not finishing on time, Gore lawyer Dexter Douglass argued.
``It's like when a police officer says stop, and a line of cars backs up behind you ... and then he gives you a ticket for blocking traffic,'' Douglass said.
A lawyer for Harris, Joe Klock, said she acted scrupulously to follow Florida law and Lewis' order.
``Rather than violating the order of this court, we paid particular attention to following the orders of this court,'' he argued.
Both campaigns also awaited word from a federal appeals court that has agreed to hear Bush's constitutional challenge to the recounts.
Bush asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stop the hand counts pending a ruling on whether they violate voters' rights to be treated equally under the law. His lawyers warned that Americans are witnessing the ``disintegration'' of the way they elect presidents.
Bush lost that argument Monday before a federal judge in Miami.
``This case is simply not appropriate for federal court intervention of any kind at this point in the proceeding,'' Gore's lawyers replied in the appeals case.
The Bush camp says hand recounts are prone to error and treat voters differently based on where they live. The 11th Circuit also is considering a related appeal by Brevard County, Fla., Bush voters who claim their rights were violated because Brevard is not recanvassing votes by hand.
Whichever side loses in Atlanta could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.