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Arizona Supreme Court bars candidate with limited English

The Arizona Supreme Court upholds a Superior Court ruling that Alejandrina Cabrera may not appear on the San Luis City Council ballot because her English language skills are insufficient.

February 08, 2012|By Ricardo Lopez, Los Angeles Times
  • Many observers said the legal challenge to Alejandrina Cabreras candidacy in San Luis, Ariz., was motivated by the towns fierce political infighting.
Many observers said the legal challenge to Alejandrina Cabreras candidacy… (Ricardo Lopez, Los Angeles…)

A would-be city council candidate in Arizona will not appear on an upcoming ballot because her English skills are insufficient, the state's Supreme Court decided Tuesday.

In a brief two-page order, the high court affirmed a Superior Court judge's ruling, which struck Alejandrina Cabrera's name from the March ballot in the town of San Luis.

The case, which attracted international media attention, was closely watched because of possible legal repercussions for other border communities where Spanish predominates. Cabrera's lawyers argued that the court should not set a standard for English and that the issue should be decided by San Luis voters.

Cabrera acknowledged her English is weak, but said she knew enough of the language to represent San Luis. Almost 99% of the town's residents are Latino, and Spanish is spoken virtually everywhere.

One San Luis resident recently admitted that he spoke little English when he served on the City Council a few years ago.

To some people in town, the dispute over Cabrera's candidacy was less about language than a reflection of San Luis' tough brand of politics. Since 2001, there have been 24 recall attempts — seven of them successful.

Cabrera, who was born in nearby Yuma, Ariz., but primarily raised in Mexico, had spent 10 years working as a political activist in San Luis, an agricultural border town of 25,000.

Last year, she decided to run for office but hit a roadblock when Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla filed a lawsuit challenging her eligibility because of her lack of English fluency. The City Council later voted to use city funds to defend the suit.

After Cabrera's English skills were evaluated by a linguist, Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson ruled last month that her grasp of English was not sufficient to hold public office.

In his report to the court, William Eggington, a linguist at Brigham Young University, wrote that Cabrera had a "survival" level of English.

San Luis City Atty. Glenn Gimbut said Eggington reviewed packets of City Council minutes and recordings of other city meetings to determine what level of English was needed for basic government duties.

"She's a nice lady. She's hard-working, and she means well," Gimbut said in a phone interview after the court's decision. "But you have to be able to understand materials coming at you."

Cabrera was unavailable for comment, but John Minore, one of her attorneys, said he was surprised with the ruling.

"What this means is that if I don't like you, I can file a challenge because of your English," Minore said.

The case, which had been expedited because it involved an election matter, did not include oral arguments. Briefs were filed Thursday evening, and the Supreme Court took the case up over the weekend.

The initial deadline to print San Luis' ballots passed last week but was extended through Tuesday to await the ruling.

Many San Luis observers said the legal challenge to Cabrera's candidacy was motivated by the town's fierce political infighting. Cabrera has twice filed unsuccessful recall petitions against Escamilla.

"This case stinks of politics all the way," Minore said.

ricardo.lopez2@latimes.com

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