The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' reversal of itself in the California recall election cost nothing more than a week's worth of confusion, yet it was a significant loss because of the short time frame of the campaign.
A week after a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit decided the election should be postponed, apparently until March, the full court ruled Tuesday the recall election against Gov. Gray Davis could proceed on Oct. 7.
The initial decision had been widely criticized -- not only for its legal imprecision, but for the practical effect it would have on the election itself. For one thing, some 400,000 Californians already cast absentee ballots. For another, the recall -- with its 130-odd candidates -- would not have fit on the March ballot along with a presidential primary.
So the 11-judge court backed itself out of a corner with its new opinion -- overruling itself before the U.S. Supreme Court even got a chance.
The 9th Circuit's off-again, on-again logic did nothing to elucidate the central question, which is whether an election can be conducted fairly using punch-card ballots. It opened the door to an election but also to a whole season of second-guessing on whether the results should or should not be contested in court after the fact.
This is the way of the world today, we suppose -- and, as we noted earlier, the real legacy of the 2000 presidential election.
In the meantime, the campaign by Gov. Davis and his many challengers can renew in earnest. The effect of the 9th Circuit's week-long waffle on the election will be forever debated, but the fact of the matter is that it is far better to go ahead with the election on Oct. 7 than some later date.
The campaign has been short, and voters may not have all the information they need on major candidates. But that's the way California law sets up a recall election. That's what voters must get.