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Ruling gives Janet Nguyen a seat as O.C. supervisor

A judge proclaims her the recount winner over Trung Nguyen but narrows the margin to three votes. An appeal is said to be likely.

March 27, 2007|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

A judge ruled Monday that Janet Nguyen won the February election for an Orange County Board of Supervisors seat by a slim three-vote margin, rejecting arguments by her opponent that a recount wasn't completed because the paper audit of electronically cast ballots was not counted manually.

"All the votes were counted," said Orange County Superior Court Judge Michael Brenner. "There was a full and legal recount."

Brenner also ruled that state law allows the person seeking and paying for the recount to choose the method by which votes are counted.

It was, he said, "perfectly reasonable" for Janet Nguyen to ask for about 35,000 paper absentee ballots to be checked by hand to contest ones that weren't filled out properly and then ask to have about 10,000 electronic votes recounted the way they were on election night -- by machine.

"The evidence in this case found no complaints about the [performance of election] machines," Brenner said, adding that recounting the paper audit "probably wouldn't show a great deal anyway."

His decision capped a contentious four-day trial sought by Trung Nguyen, whose initial lead in the 1st District race was overturned by the recount.

Janet Nguyen is expected to be sworn in today by supervisors, who had voted this month to let a court sort out the legal issues involved in the case. The clerk of the board was in the courtroom Monday to hand the winner a stack of documents outlining issues on today's meeting agenda.

"I'm ready. I've been ready," Janet Nguyen said after the hearing. "I respect the system, I respect the process, and I'm very excited by the ruling.... This election separated all of us. My goal now is to

Trung Nguyen, who is not related to the winner, declined to comment and left the courthouse as his attorney, Michael Schroeder, said an appeal was likely. "Why would you have a paper record if you don't count it?" Schroeder said. "I believe the law is crystal clear."

But Brenner noted how one could find contradictions in portions of the state's massive election code that addressed the issues raised.

"There is a conflict here, at least if you read them on the surface," Brenner said Friday before offering his reasoning on how they should be read.

It was, for now at least, the last word in a complex case.

Over four days, lawyers for both candidates and for Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley cited a century's worth of case law and dissected the election code, offering differing views on legislative intent and the definition of terms such as "full recount," "voting system" and "software."

All sides agreed that Brenner's ruling could set a precedent.

Brenner seemed intent on letting all sides have their say at great length, jokingly acknowledging that he wouldn't be the last judge to hear Nguyen v. Nguyen.

"I've done a lot of trials, and this one is somewhat unusual," he said at one point. "We're going to err on the side of inclusion ... just on the outside chance" there is an appeal.

The comment brought laughter from the seven lawyers that crowded before him -- one attorney for each vote that had separated the candidates after the recount.

In the end, though, Janet Nguyen's margin of victory was three votes. Brenner narrowed the race Friday by overturning the registrar of voters' decision on four recounted ballots.

On Monday, Brenner praised Kelley for his meticulous handling of the election and recount.

"There wasn't anything arbitrary about it," he said. "I was impressed with the registrar's office and how they acted."

mike.anton@latimes.com

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