Lawyers for both sides in the English-only dispute at the Southeast District Municipal Court claimed a partial victory this week after the county Civil Service Commission ruled that the court's three judges discriminated when they ordered their clerks to speak only English at work.
Kent Wong, attorney for Local 660 Service Employees International Union, said the union believes the commission's decision will help protect county workers from similar workplace rules.
"We hope that this will set a precedent for the tens of thousands of county employees and send a message that English-only rules are not permissible in Los Angeles County," Wong said.
The commission ruled 4 to 1 last week that the English-only rule issued by the judges in March of 1984 violates Civil Service rules that prohibit discrimination against county employees. The judges have said they issued the rule in response to complaints from several Anglo court clerks that Latino clerks were talking about them in Spanish.
The commissioners said that the rule had caused Latino clerks at the courthouse in Huntington Park to be subjected to harassment, ridicule and isolation. However, the commission stopped short of ordering the judges to rescind the rule, which has never been enforced.
Larry J. Roberts, an Orange County attorney representing judges Porter deDubovay, Russell Schooling and John Bunnett, said the commission's failure to order the judges to rescind the rule supports his longstanding argument that the commission has no jurisdiction over the judicial branch of government.
"I have researched this issue to the nth degree to see if the commission has any authority to order the judges, and have found nothing," Roberts said. "In essence, this was a defeat for the union that wanted the rule withdrawn."
The judges still face a discrimination lawsuit by Alva Gutierrez, the former county employee at the center of the dispute. That suit is still pending in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The judges say that they issued the rule, which ordered employees to speak English during working hours except on breaks and during lunch, because several clerks complained that Gutierrez often talked about them in Spanish.
Soon after the controversy erupted, Gutierrez went on medical leave. She has filed a claim for a stress-related psychological disability caused by her job. The claim is pending.
Roberts said the discrimination lawsuit could be ruled upon sometime this year and said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the court will agree that his clients were not discriminating against Gutierrez but were attempting to deal with a personnel problem involving her.
Roberts said that if the appeals court rules against the judges, he will recommend that his clients appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gutierrez's attorney, Gerald Sato, said the decision by the Civil Service Commission is not likely to have a significant effect on his case before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.