Appeals court blocks California recall
Voting equipment 'defects' cited
SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- A federal appeals court Monday ordered California officials to halt preparations for the October 7 gubernatorial recall election, citing concerns about a "hurried, constitutionally infirm" process.
Specifically, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the state needed to upgrade its voting equipment first.
"The inherent defects in the system are such that approximately 40,000 voters who travel to the polls and cast their ballot will not have their vote counted at all," the court ruled, citing voting machines that the secretary of state's office has declared unfit.
Voters had been scheduled to go to the polls October 7 to decide whether to remove California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat.
The battle may head next to the U.S. Supreme Court as an attorney for the man who initiated the recall effort said his client would file an appeal to the nation's top court. The lower court stayed its order for seven days to allow appeals.
If Monday's ruling stands, the recall vote could be moved to March 2004, when it would share space on the ballot with California's presidential primary.
Davis, who Monday spent a second day campaigning with former President Clinton, said he was "prepared to conduct this election whenever the courts tell me the election is going to occur."
Davis had pushed for the recall vote to take place in March, when the state's presidential primary was expected to draw a higher Democratic turnout.
"It seems to me that the more people think about the recall, the more that decide to oppose it," he said.
The ruling follows a hearing last week at which the American Civil Liberties Union argued that election officials should have more time to replace antiquated voting machines in several California counties.
The ACLU said the punch-card system could disenfranchise voters in six counties, including Los Angeles, the state's largest. Those six counties include 44 percent of state voters and have heavy concentrations of minority voters.
A lower court last month had rejected the request, but the appeals court disagreed.
"In sum, in assessing the public interest, the balance falls heavily in favor of postponing the election for a few months," the court concluded, citing the U.S. Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision that settled the 2000 presidential election.
"The choice between holding a hurried, constitutionally infirm election and one held a short time later that assures voters that the 'rudimentary requirements of equal treatment and fundamental fairness are satisfied' is clear."
Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the ACLU, called the decision "a masterpiece."
"To those who say this will upset things, I suppose one answer is in fact this is going to give the voters of California more time to consider the issues and the character and the substance of the candidates," Rosenbaum said.
The 9th Circuit has a reputation as being one of the most liberal appellate courts in the federal judiciary, and its decisions are often reversed by the Supreme Court.
An attorney for Ted Costa, who initiated the recall effort, said he will file an appeal within two days to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Costa will bypass the standard federal appeals process and go straight to the nation's highest court, his attorney Chuck Diamond said.
Costa is head of a Sacramento-based activist group called People's Advocate. The recall effort was largely bankrolled by Darrell Issa, a GOP congressman and millionaire businessman.
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- the leading Republican candidate to replace Davis should the recall succeed -- said he would continue his campaign for governor and called on Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to appeal the decision immediately.
"Historically, the courts have upheld the rights of voters, and I expect that the court will do so again in this case," he said.
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the leading Democrat among the 135 replacement candidates on the ballot, said he was confident the court would reach "a carefully thought out and considered decision.
"We will continue our campaign until there is finality in the courts," he said in a written statement after the decision.
But state Sen. Tom McClintock, one of the Republican candidates hoping to replace Davis should the recall succeed, said the ruling is "simply a distraction and will have no bearing on this election."
McClintock said the 9th Circuit "has become a national laughing stock" for previous rulings, such as one that found the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance amounted to an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
"I have every confidence that, in a short time, the U.S. Supreme Court will allow this election to go forward," he said.
McClintock trails both Bustamante and Schwarzenegger in recent polls.
In Washington, officials at the Justice Department and the White House declined comment.
-- CNN Correspondents Bob Franken and Kelly Wallace contributed to this report.