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Awaiting Court Decision In Calif.

A three-judge federal panel has decided to wait a week before ruling on lawsuits that seek to postpone California's historic recall election because it might disenfranchise minority voters.

The judges on Friday also continued a temporary restraining order that prevents Monterey County elections officials from mailing absentee ballots to overseas voters. The order was first issued Aug. 15, after the lawsuits were filed. The panel said it would not rule on the lawsuits until Sept. 5.

Civil rights groups are calling for the Oct. 7 election to be delayed, contending that the hurry-up timeframe is forcing counties to change their voting plans in ways that disenfranchise minority voters - and that such changes require federal approval under the Voting Rights Act.

Under federal law, the Department of Justice must pre-clear any revisions to the voting process in Monterey and three other California counties with a history of low voter participation.

Unless federal lawyers approve Monterey County's plan to conduct the vote on short notice by consolidating some polling places, the judges could delay the election on whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis, perhaps until the March presidential primary.

Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez said the department was still weighing whether the government would sign off on Monterey County's plan and declined further elaboration. The department has already cleared Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's decision to set the election for Oct. 7.

County officials have scrambled to prepare for an election date that was set for less than 11 weeks after it was certified. Cash-strapped Monterey County, for example, plans to cut costs by reducing its usual 190 polling places to 86.

Civil rights groups sued, saying the Justice Department must first sign off on those and other changes to ensure that minorities won't be disenfranchised. Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel agreed - and ordered Monterey and state election officials back to his courtroom under threats that the recall could get postponed.

The three judges overseeing Friday's hearing were Fogel, a President Clinton appointee, and two appointed by Republicans: U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Consuelo Callahan. Voting Rights Act claims are heard by a three-judge panel because, under that 1965 law, appeals skip the federal appellate level and go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The panel heard two cases Friday.

In one, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco seeks to have the entire election delayed on grounds that the Justice Department has not approved Monterey County's proposed changes.

In the other, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is asking the judges to move Proposition 54 to the March ballot - its original date, before the recall qualified. MALDEF charges that, among other things, a reduction in polling places in Monterey could keep minorities from voting on the proposition, which would prohibit state and local governments from tracking the race of their employees, students and contractors.

In a related development, MALDEF sued Kings and Merced counties this week in Fresno federal court, charging that the Justice Department must approve any reduction in polling places there, too.

Also Friday, the California Legislative Black Caucus joined other groups of Democratic lawmakers in opposing the recall while endorsing Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as the best successor if Davis is removed from office. The seven Democrats also said they were opposed to Proposition 54.

In other developments:

  • Just three years after Californians voted to impose controls on campaign financing, the unexpected recall election is turning into "a spending frenzy without limits," The New York Times says in its Saturday editions. The newspaper cites experts who say, when it comes to the recall, California's complex campaign financing controls, a clutter of legislation, voter initiatives and court opinions, appear to be more loophole than law.
  • Feminist attorney Gloria Allred sent a letter to Arnold Schwarzenegger asking that he explain a 1977 magazine interview that surfaced this week in which he described sexual exploits during his bodybuilding days, including a group sex incident at a gym in Venice involving him, other bodybuilders, and a woman.

    Schwarzenegger's campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter after it was released late Friday. Earlier in the day Schwarzenegger's spokesman Rob Stutzman dismissed any comments from Allred, describing her as "a Gray Davis donor and partisan Democrat" who "looks for every opportunity to catapult her face onto television screens."

  • Schwarzenegger's campaign unveiled a revamped Web site that details some new policy positions. Among them: Schwarzenegger supports the death penalty and the three-strikes law and opposes any change to the requirement that votes from two-thirds of state legislators are required to pass a budget or a tax increase.
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