When Suzanne Cook, a Southeast Municipal Court clerk, complained last year that a Latino co-worker's gossip about her in Spanish had prompted her to seek a new job, the court's judges took note.
Cook was not the first clerk to bring the dispute over language to the attention of supervisors. Several clerks had complained to their office supervisors that the number of private conversations in Spanish was growing, and two clerks had approached the court's judges, who normally had limited contact with the clerk's office, said a supervisor who asked not to be named.
The court's judges say they were surprised to find that an emotional tempest was brewing over the problem. Cook said she was offended by a marked increase in Spanish conversations among three or four Latino clerks she worked with and hoped to leave her job at the Huntington Park courthouse. A few others were talking about following suit.
Moreover, several of the 27 full-time clerks, including Anglos, blacks and even some Latinos, complained that a handful of Latino clerks were increasingly using Spanish to cloak their conversations and occasionally made it clear that they were discussing co-workers.
In what they say was an attempt to defuse the problem, the judges issued a rule in March of 1984 prohibiting the use of any language but English during working hours.
In hindsight, they now admit, that attempt backfired miserably.
Judges Russell Schooling, John Bunnett and Porter deDubovay, speaking for the first time about their role in the widely reported controversy, said in interviews that they are "incredulous" over the havoc their rule has caused.
In the year after the rule was issued, Alva Gutierrez, the clerk at the core of the dispute, stepped up her use of Spanish with two Latino co-workers, according to several clerks and two supervisors. Heated arguments broke out between English-speakers and Latinos over whether the Latinos should follow the judges' order, they said.
Last month, Gutierrez filed a civil lawsuit against the judges, claiming discrimination. She is now on a stress-related medical leave from her job because of the controversy, according to her attorney, Gloria Allred.
Although both sides agree that the rule was never formally enforced, Allred and Gutierrez claim that Gutierrez's right to speak in any language she is comfortable with was violated when the judges issued the order.
"My client has suffered extreme personal damage," Allred said. Allred has claimed in her federal lawsuit that the English-only rule was used as a "covert basis for national origin discrimination" and to create "an atmosphere of racial and ethnic oppression."
Gutierrez said in an interview that as a result of the rule, "my life has been disrupted and I am under a lot of stress. I feel as if I am fighting this alone, and it is not a very good feeling."
Second Lawsuit Promised
Richard Reyna, attorney for Local 660, Service Employees International Union, has promised he will also file a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of at least one other Latino employee, hinting that "a major Hispanic organization" will join the fray.
He declined to say how many clerks will be represented by his suit and he has advised his clients not to talk to the press until the suit is filed.
Reyna says that the English-only rule violates federal civil rights laws enacted in 1964, which protect a person's choice of speech. He also argues that the rule "has had a chilling effect on Latinos in the workplace."
"An example was made of Alva and now they have all been intimidated," he said. "The full force of the court is coming down on these women."
But the controversy has gone well beyond the aging courthouse in Huntington Park. In the past month, the judges have been attacked as racists by Latino activists and embraced as patriotic Americans by a right-wing movement that wants to declare English the official language of the United States.
The hubbub has left the judges shaking their heads.
Bunnett, Schooling and deDubovay say the dispute has been widely misrepresented by the press, by Reyna and Allred, and by county officials who want to rid themselves of a political hot potato.
Support for Rule
Media coverage has focused almost exclusively on Gutierrez's claims. However, eight clerks who support the rule wrote a letter to the union, Local 660, challenging the union's involvement and saying they were not being represented. The clerks told the union that the English-only rule was needed to head off Gutierrez's increasingly disruptive use of Spanish. The clerks say the union has never responded.
The judges are being backed by a group of employees that includes at least two of the courthouse's 10 full-time Latino clerks.
And, according to Greg Petersen, an attorney for the judges, about half of the 27 full-time clerks--including Anglos, Latinos and blacks--have signed depositions supporting the judges' rule or have indicated that they will.