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Why Trutanich (and Others) Can Get Sued Over Job Description Listed on the Ballot

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Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, left, attends a press conference with City Councilmember Paul Koretz in 2010. Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images

It's tough to imagine another scenario in which so much fuss can be made over three little words (other than "I love you"), but here it is: On Monday a judge will hear arguments over whether Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich can describe himself to voters as "Los Angeles Chief Prosecutor" in the race to be the next, well, chief prosecutor.

(That was four words, you say. But "Los Angeles" is a place and so counts for one.)

Trutanich is facing off against five other candidates in the race to be the next district attorney for the County of Los Angeles. His opponents include several prosecutors who already work in that office, including the current D.A.'s top deputy, Jackie Lacey.

If Trutanich loses in court, he will have to strike the words "chief prosecutor" from his description on the ballot (Update 4/9/12: Trutanich lost).

If he wins, then when you receive your ballot for the June 5 primary, your options for the next district attorney will look more or less like this, with the names of the candidates each followed by their respective ballot designation:

Gang Homicide Prosecutor

Deputy District Attorney

Los Angeles Chief Prosecutor

Senior Deputy DA

Chief Deputy D.A.

Deputy District Attorney

Why is this an issue?

The words "chief prosecutor" are used in reference to the district attorney often enough (not least by reporters) that it could almost be considered common usage. Looking at the list of candidates above, it might appear to voters that Trutanich is the incumbent. Not so. If there were an incumbent, it would be Steve Cooley, but he decided not to run for re-election.

Fellow candidate Alan Jackson filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court shortly after LA Weekly ran a piece in March pointing out the issue. Now it will be up to a judge to decide whether the description Trutanich wants placed on the ballot complies with state election laws or whether he should have to change it.

But how did it get this far? And who writes those candidate descriptions anyway?

In three words or less, candidates for public office get to write their own ballot designation.

The candidates file a "ballot designation worksheet," which includes two alternate descriptions in case the first one doesn't fly. On this form, candidates are also required to justify their choice of words. Technically, elections officials must reject a ballot designation that doesn't comply with the law, but candidates can (and fairly often do) sue if they feel it should have been rejected and it wasn't.

So how do you know if the ballot designation complies with the law? What are the rules?

California election laws define what is and is not allowed as a ballot designation. Here are some of the things a candidate CAN write in their description:

  • elective office title such as "L.A. City Councilwoman," but only if they currently hold that position
  • "Incumbent" is also okay if they currently hold the office and are seeking re-election
    - "Appointed Incumbent" - a must if initially appointed to office and seeking election for the first time
  • principal occupation such as "Educator," "Criminal Prosecutor," "Physician"
  • "Community Volunteer" if that is indeed what they do as a principal occupation, paid or otherwise

Here's what they CANNOT write in their ballot designation:

  • no titles or degrees (except clergy, who can list a title such as "Rabbi" or "Minister" but not a specific denomination)
  • can't refer to a trademark or a specific company by name, such as "President/CEO, IBM"
  • no modifiers that suggest qualifications for the office, such as "Expert," "Respected," "Best"
  • no former jobs and no "Retired" or "Ex-" anything unless in fact retired and that was the last principal occupation held
  • no references to race, ethnicity or religion (except the clerical title as mentioned earlier)
  • no political party names
  • nothing that would mislead the voter

The sticking point for Jackson -- and likely in many other cases like this one -- is that last bit about misleading the voter. It's so short, so unassuming, yet so ripe for interpretation.
As LA Weekly reported, Jackson takes issue with all three words in Trutanich's ballot designation, claiming that each is intended to mislead the voters. By "Los Angeles," he clearly means the city, yet it could also refer to the county. "Chief" implies the boss of all prosecutors, aka the district attorney himself. And "prosecutor" implies that he is in the legal trenches rather than serving as an administrator.

Why does it matter? And why does it seem that every election cycle someone gets sued over this?

The act of choosing a three-word description may seem inconsequential, but without knowing anything else about the candidates, a voter may, in a fit of misguided if well-intentioned civic pride, decide to vote anyway. Given the choice between a candidate who is listed simply as an attorney and one who appears to hold the office, a person might just go with the incumbent. After all, the incumbent inherently comes with on-the-job experience.

Regardless of the outcome here, just keep in mind those three little words aren't a great indicator of who you're really voting for. You still have to do your homework.

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