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Citizen Redress Thrown For A Loop

The initiative and recall process has been thrown into turmoil after a federal court ruled that petitions from grass-roots activists have to be translated into foreign languages.

Citizen groups argue the new requirement is a burdensome and expensive impediment to the petition process.

Others say it's only fair that all citizens, even those who don't speak English, have full access to information leading up to an election.

This comes up as the debate on immigration boiled over last week with widespread student walk-outs and protests against legislation aimed at tightening immigration laws.

The petition issue is being watched intently by election officials throughout the West. If the decision stands, they want to know what rules they have to play by.

The uncertainty has already stymied the efforts of a slow-growth movement in Loma Linda.

The Save Loma Linda group had gathered signatures in an effort to force an election on restricting development in the city's South Hills, but a federal judge last month threw out the petitions, saying they had to be translated into Spanish.

''All the developers' plans and City Council documents were in English,'' Kathy Glendrange of Save Loma Linda wrote in an e-mail. ''It's outrageous to me that they can approve the plans in English, but then if the citizens want to object, the citizens have to pay to translate all the documents into Spanish. How is that fair?''

San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Kari Verjil said county attorneys are looking at the issue.

''We're still waiting for an opinion on that. It was kind of a surprise to me about the Spanish requirement,'' she said.

The ruling on the Loma Linda case was based on a November decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled recall petitions in Orange County have to be translated. (The case is Padilla v. Lever.)

The court for the first time expanded the reach of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to include activities by citizen groups trying to force an election.

In a 2-1 decision, the court invalidated petitions for a recall election in the Santa Ana Unified School District because they weren't translated into Spanish.

Under the 1965 act, election materials have to be translated into foreign languages if 5 percent of the voting age population speaks that language. That clearly applies to ballots and other election materials provided by the government.

San Bernardino County has to translate ballots and other election materials into Spanish. Los Angeles County has to put materials into six other languages. Orange County has four languages besides English.

The 10th and 11th U.S. circuit courts of appeal in 1988 rejected the idea of applying the translation requirement to citizen-generated petitions.

Monterey County last month also had a slow-growth effort similar to Loma Linda's rejected.

The U.S. District Court judges who ruled in the Loma Linda and Monterey cases said if the translation requirement applied to recalls, it must also apply to initiatives and referendums.

Orange County, along with other states in the 9th Circuit, have asked for a review of the case by all 11 judges of the court, said Neal Kelley, interim registrar of voters in Orange County. The 9th Circuit covers Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.

''This raises a lot of questions,'' Kelley said.

For one, who pays for the translation, the citizen groups or the county? And who ensures the translation is accurate?

For now, Orange County officials are telling any groups considering petitions to get them translated, Kelley said.

''Things are being thrown off the ballot left and right,'' said Bryce Gee, an attorney working for the Monterey slow-growth group.

His group hopes the 9th Circuit will decide this week to hear an appeal of the decision by the lower court judge that shot down the Monterey County petitions. The group still hopes to make the June ballot, he said.

In his dissent to the 9th Circuit ruling, Judge William C. Canby Jr. expressed concern that the decision could wind up restricting citizen participation.

''The downside ... is the chilling effect on recalls and initiatives,'' he wrote, adding later, ''I fear that the majority's ruling here, rather than opening the electoral process in accord with the intent of the Voting Rights Act, will have a tendency to close it.''

Though immigrants who attain citizenship are required to understand English, advocates say the authors of the Voting Rights Act sought to make sure everyone has a fair chance at participating in elections.

''We live in a country that's pluralistic, that's diverse ... . We should be respectful that other people maintain their native language and want to be part of the process,'' said Armando Navarro, a professor at UC Riverside and national coordinator of the National Alliance for Human Rights.

Others argue the requirement perpetuates a society that is becoming more splintered.

''If you are a citizen, you should have had to pass English proficiency,'' said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform. ''We have seen in the past week the deep social divisions in our country. All of this contributes to the fragmentation of our society at a time when we need to be coming together.''

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