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English-Only Rule Is Struck Down; 3 Judges Chided

April 30, 1985|BILL FARR | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge chided three Los Angeles County municipal judges Monday in striking down their order that their court clerks could speak only English while on their courthouse jobs.

In granting a preliminary injunction against the rule imposed 13 months ago in the county's Southeast Judicial District, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Gadbois Jr. said:

"The fact that this case has come this far without being resolved is rather vivid testimony that black robes do not by themselves bestow wisdom upon those who wear them."

The judges at whom that remark was directed--John Bunnett, Porter deDubovay and Russell Schooling--had no immediate response to Monday's court proceeding.

Sitting in the back of Gadbois' courtroom at the downtown Los Angeles federal building was Alva Gutierrez, a 29-year-old court clerk-interpreter assigned to the Huntington Park court, who filed the discrimination action against the three judges.

When Gadbois granted the injunction, she gasped and quietly began to cry. After she had gained her composure, Gutierrez told reporters she was "very happy" and "relieved" at the outcome.

Gutierrez, who said the rule caused divisiveness among courthouse workers and caused her "mental stress and strain," has been on stress-related medical leave from her job since February.

Gutierrez said that because of the large Latino population in the southeast part of the county, the court in Huntington Park conducts much of its business in Spanish. She said that clerks hired as interpreters as "quite normally talked among themselves in Spanish."

Her attorney, Gloria Allred, was more pointed in her remarks, saying that Gadbois' ruling would send a message to all who seek to discriminate against the large Latino community in Los Angeles County.

"In plain English, it means no employer can implement an 'English only' rule during working hours unless they can show a good business reason for it," Allred said. "Judge Gadbois agreed with us that this kind of rule is illegal and is a violation of federal law."

The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously earlier this month to ask the three judges to rescind their rule. Although they had no power to order the judges to drop the rule, they made specific their opposition by refusing to have the county pay the jurists' legal fees, which reportedly have exceeded $5,000. The county customarily pays legal fees for judges sued as a result of personnel disputes.

The board vote to deny payment of legal fees was taken after weeks of negotiations in which the county Human Relations Commission and individual supervisors tried to persuade the judges to drop the rule.

During the hearing before the board, Supervisor Ed Edelman said the language rule was imposed after a court clerk who speaks only English complained that she thought other clerks were gossiping about her in Spanish.

"Instead of mediating the problem, the judges issued their 'English only' rule," Edelman said.

An attorney for the judges, Greg Petersen, said the rule was an attempt to require good "manners, common courtesy from one employee to another."

Petersen said the judges and county officials had been "very, very close to a compromise" on guidelines that would have encouraged the use of English by court personnel but would not have required it in all circumstances.

But both sides said the compromise fell apart after Allred filed the lawsuit on behalf of Gutierrez.

The judges have filed a suit to prevent the county Civil Service Commission from hearing arguments in a discrimination case filed by a union representing workers, and lawyers for the judges have said they will sue the county over the decision not to pay their legal fees.

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