U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel said Friday the ballots may not go out until the Justice Department determines that minorities will not be alienated at the ballot box on Oct. 7.
The court challenge is one of several that have attempted to thwart or stall the effort to recall Davis and it appeared to have better luck than previous tries, including a similar one Thursday that failed in state court.
Because election clerks plan to save money by opening fewer polling places and hiring fewer Spanish-speaking poll workers, voting by Hispanics and other groups with a history of low turnout could be limited, the plaintiffs argued. In Monterey and three other counties with low turnout, changes in election procedure need federal clearance, which had not been received by Friday.
The judge did not make a final ruling on the timing, which could be delayed until the March primary.
Thomas Saenz, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which brought one of the lawsuits, said the delay in mailing ballots overseas could present further constitutional problems if the election goes ahead as planned and residents abroad can't get their ballots back in time.
"You can't have one group of voters that's not allowed to have their votes count," Saenz said.
The court action came as Arnold Schwarzenegger was rebuked for comments an adviser made that California's property taxes are too low.
Billionaire Warren Buffett, one of the actor's financial advisers, told the Wall Street Journal that the landmark Proposition 13 tax initiative may need reforms that include higher property taxes. He said he pays $14,401 in annual property taxes on his $500,000 home in Omaha, Neb., but only $2,264 on his $4 million Laguna Beach home.
Proposition 13, which limits property tax hikes to no more than 2 percent a year, is considered politically untouchable in California, and Davis and well-known Republicans in the field of 135 candidates quickly responded.
"Lord knows we have some things in California that cost a lot, but property taxes are not one of them and nobody is going to change this," the governor said at a Los Angeles elementary school.
State Sen. Tom McClintock, a Republican candidate, criticized Buffett's comments.
"My message to Mr. Buffett and Mr. Schwarzenegger is this: That property tax bill is a suggested minimum. They are more than welcome to send in as much more as makes them happy. I only ask that they leave the rest of us alone."
Schwarzenegger supports the anti-tax initiative and was a keynote speaker at its silver anniversary gala earlier this summer, said spokesman Rob Stutzman.
But the situation demonstrated a campaign danger faced by the bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-candidate, who has little or no record of public policy positions. Political analysts say advisers' opinions can easily become grafted onto the candidate.
"He takes the risk of being perceived as an empty vessel, a smart but empty vessel, into which Warren Buffett, George Shultz and Pete Wilson can pour their ideas," said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine.
In other developments: