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Judge Defies Civil Panel's Inquiry of English-Only Rule

January 15, 1987|JILL STEWART | Times Staff Writer

The presiding judge of the Southeast District Municipal Court in Huntington Park has refused to honor a subpoena from the county Civil Service Commission ordering him to testify on the court's 1984 rule requiring courthouse clerks to speak English at work.

Judge Porter deDubovay did not appear at the commission hearing last week. Instead, attorney Larry Roberts, who represents all three of the court's judges, asked the commission to withdraw itself from the controversy.

His request was denied, and the commission heard arguments from Kent Wong, an attorney for Local 660 Service Employees International Union, who is representing 13 former and current Latino employees of the courthouse.

Findings Expected

Wong said he is optimistic that the commission will support his view that the judges discriminated against county employees when they issued the English-only rule. He said the commission is expected to issue its findings in the case within 30 days.

However, Roberts said deDubovay and judges Russell Schooling and John Bunnett do not recognize the commission as having authority over the judicial branch, and will not abide by any of the commission's findings. The English-only rule currently is not in effect because of a 1985 preliminary injunction issued by a U.S. District Court judge.

"We're really breaking new ground," Roberts said. "I talked to the attorney for the commission and he said they've never had a challenge to their subpoenas before."

Roberts said only the courts can decide whether the judges were in error.

Lunchtime an Exception

The three judges prohibited the use of languages other than English--except at lunch and during breaks--after several Anglo clerks complained that a Latino clerk was encouraging other Latino clerks to speak Spanish among themselves at work.

"The issue for the judges has become one of principle, rather than the significance of an English-only rule," Roberts said this week. "This was a personality problem, not a discrimination problem, and the judges have no intention of letting a civil commission tell them how to run their court."

The judges last spring asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to bar the commission's proposed hearings. Judge Irving Shimer called the commission's involvement "a dumb political waste of time," but said he did not wish to ban the hearings.

5 No Longer Work There

Wong said five of the 13 Latino clerks he is representing no longer work at the courthouse, including Alva Gutierrez, the clerk at the center of the dispute. In April of 1985, Gutierrez said she was suffering from stress-related problems and went on medical leave. She has filed a separate lawsuit in U.S. Distrtict Court seeking monetary damages.

"We are asking for a ruling of discrimination, and we hope this will protect other county employees from English-language rules and restrictions," Wong said. "We're very optimistic about our chances."

However, Roberts said the judges' position has been strengthened by voter approval of Proposition 63, declaring English the state's official language. Roberts said official arguments in support of Proposition 63 on the November ballot "singled out government workplaces as areas where English must be used."

Wong said the judges "are being obstinate" and called Roberts' use of Proposition 63 as an argument "perfectly ludicrous."

The judges will appear in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 5 to present their arguments against the 1985 preliminary injunction prohibiting their use of the English-only rule. The injunction was ordered in response to a discrimination suit filed by Gutierrez.

Seeks Monetary Damages

Gerald Sato, Gutierrez's attorney, said that as part of that suit his client is seeking monetary damages for alleged mental trauma.

Roberts criticized Gutierrez and her attorneys, saying the controversy could have been settled more than a year ago if Gutierrez had not filed the lawsuit.

The judges had met with the county Human Relations Commission and were close to working out a compromise on their English-only rule with the Latino clerks when Gutierrez unexpectedly filed suit, according to county officials.

Since then, legal costs to the county have grown to more than $180,000. Roberts said the judges "have been pilloried in the press for creating those costs, but the other side is to blame for forcing our hand. . . . Alva Gutierrez is looking for a windfall and her attorneys are looking for big attorney fees, and that's the shame of this whole thing."

But Sato said his client has suffered real damage, and denied that he or his client are motivated by monetary gain.

Rule Said Too Harsh

"I'm a Japanese-American, and I think the (English-only) rule is akin to being ordered to come to work with a bag over your head," he said. "Language and culture are inseparable."

Although the judges have been criticized by county officials and Latino organizations for issuing the rule, many English-speaking workers in the courthouse have stood by them. In interviews after the controversy surfaced, several Anglo clerks said that Gutierrez spoke in Spanish about the Anglo workers around her.

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