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Ruling on O.C. Petitions Reversed

Times Staff Writer

Recall petitions need to be printed only in English, even when some voters are not proficient in the language, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The federal Voting Rights Act requires ballots and other government-produced election material to be published in other languages if more than 5% of the voters speak a different language.

But in a case involving the Santa Ana Unified School District, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the requirement did not apply to recall petitions written and circulated by citizens.

The court reversed a decision last year by a 9th Circuit panel that said petitions to recall Santa Ana school board Trustee Nativo V. Lopez in 2003 should have been printed in Spanish as well as English. Lopez was recalled by a large margin.

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The judges also said that translating recall petitions into different languages in a place such as Orange County, which has a large and diverse population, would be costly and have a “chilling effect on the petition process.”

Judge Stephen Reinhardt concurred with the majority opinion written by Judge William C. Canby Jr. but said Congress should change the law to include recall petitions under the Voting Rights Act.

In a sharply worded dissent, Judge Harry Pregerson wrote, “English-only petitions would perpetuate the very injustice the Voting Rights Act seeks to eliminate” and said the majority interpreted the law too narrowly.

Attorneys for the Orange County registrar of voters, a defendant in the case, asked the entire panel of 9th Circuit judges to review the three-judge ruling, and the court agreed. The judges noted that the initial legal action to block the election was moot, but said there was a “reasonable expectation” that English-only recall petitions would be an issue in the future.

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The case was first filed in 2003 by three Latino residents of Santa Ana who contended their civil rights were violated when they mistakenly signed the recall petition that had no Spanish translation. The plaintiffs had sued under the Voting Rights Act to stop the election but were rebuffed by a federal judge.

Nina Perales, southwest regional counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she was disappointed by the decision.

“It’s too restrictive, in light of the Voting Rights Act purpose to make the political process accessible to language minorities,” she said.

hgreza@latimes.com

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