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English-Only Law Stands, Court Says

Language: U.S. justices say attack on Arizona initiative was procedurally flawed. Movement's leaders hail action.

March 04, 1997|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The movement to make English the nation's official language got a boost Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court threw out on procedural grounds a U.S. appeals court ruling that said an "English only" law in Arizona violates Latinos' right to free speech.

The justices said unanimously that the 1988 lawsuit attacking an initiative approved by Arizona voters was flawed nearly from the start and should have been dismissed long ago.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, struck down the Arizona initiative as unconstitutional in 1995, even though the Spanish-speaking state employee who sued had long since resigned. Citing this and other procedural problems, the Supreme Court ruled that the circuit court had no jurisdiction in the case.

The high court treated the case as a textbook example of overzealous federal judges meddling inappropriately in state affairs.

"The 9th Circuit had no warrant to proceed as it did," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said sternly from the bench.

Although the Supreme Court's ruling was based on procedural concerns, leaders of the "official English" movement hailed the outcome as a victory that could clear the way for the Republican-led Congress to pass a law endorsing the exclusive use of English by the government.

"This removes a big obstacle that has been used by our enemies to slow down our movement," said Mauro E. Mujica, chairman of U.S. English, a group that claims nearly 1 million members. Some members of Congress have hesitated to pass a federal bill, he said, because the idea had been declared unconstitutional.

Twenty-three states, including California, have passed measures declaring English to be the official language, and the House of Representatives passed a similar measure late last year. A similar U.S. Senate bill has 17 co-sponsors this year, and Mujica said he is optimistic it will now win passage.

But the pending federal bill, like the disputed Arizona measure, would be mostly symbolic. Both sidestep the controversy over bilingual education in the schools and bilingual ballots.

The Arizona measure says that those issues are federal mandates and therefore are unaffected by the state initiative. Meanwhile, congressional sponsors of the federal measure did not include a repeal of bilingual education or bilingual ballots.

The Supreme Court said it was bypassing the chance to rule squarely on Arizona's measure because it did not know exactly what it means.

The initiative was drawn up by retired immigration agent Robert D. Park with the hope, he said, of stopping the "move toward official bilingualism." Approved by 50.5% of the voters in 1988, the initiative says that English is the official language of the state and the language of "all government functions and actions."

The state attorney general interpreted the measure to mean only that official state documents would be printed in English.

However, the lawsuit filed by a Latino state employee said the measure barred her from speaking to Spanish-speaking people who came to her office seeking help.

Maria-Kelly Yniquez said she wanted to write letters involving medical malpractice claims in Spanish, and she sought an order declaring her right to do so.

Based on her claim, U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt in Phoenix struck down the entire measure as unconstitutional. Then-Gov. Rose Mofford chose not to appeal.

Nonetheless, the 9th Circuit Court took up the case and split along liberal and conservative lines. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, speaking for the liberal majority, said the Arizona law violated "the American tradition of tolerance" toward immigrants. Judge Alex Kozinski, in dissent, said the liberals want to give "bureaucrats the right to turn every policy disagreement into a federal lawsuit."

Always cautious and a stickler for proper procedures, Ginsburg said in the case (Arizonans for Official English vs. Arizona) that the judge in Phoenix and the 9th Circuit Court should have deferred to the Arizona courts so they could rule first on whether the initiative even applied to workers such as Yniquez.

It "might have saved the parties years of litigation had those courts given more respectful consideration" to the Arizona attorney general's view of the matter, she said. State Atty. Gen. Grant Woods praised the decision and agreed that the Arizona courts should now decide the meaning of the 1988 initiative.

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