Wednesday, April 29, 1998
Court Rejects English-Only Law
Despite a decade-long attempt to stop it, Spanish still flows at the Arizona Office of Vital Records.
A Hispanic clerk is helping a Spanish-speaking woman and her baby. The clerk asks the woman what she needs: "Que necesitas, senora?"
Never mind that English technically has been Arizona's "official" language since 1988, when voters approved Proposition 106, mandating that all state and local government business be conducted in English. At the vital records office, both women seem oblivious to the historic developments of the day: Hours earlier, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the state's "official English" law.
Arizona became the nation's first state to have the law overturned. Some say that the decision could start a trend of unraveling laws in 20 other states that have established English as their official language. But others disagree, saying that laws in those states were merely symbolic.
Arizona's law was more explicit than the others: It not only amended the state's Constitution, but it required that all state and local government "act in English and no other language." What's more, the law prohibited government officials from making laws or policies that required the use of languages other than English. Also, it said that no government document "shall be valid, effective or enforceable unless it is in the English language."
The law allowed some exceptions. A language other than English could be spoken to assist students who are not proficient in English, to teach a foreign language, to protect public health or safety, to protect the rights of criminal defendants or victims and to comply with federal laws.
But a series of court challenges kept the law from being enforced.
Robert D. Park, a Prescott activist who campaigned for the law's passage and intervened in the court cases to defend it, said Tuesday that he thinks the law should stand. He said he plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court -- which previously ordered the Arizona Supreme Court to rule on the law's legality.
"I didn't want to have to go through this again," Park said.
The Attorney General's Office, which had defended the law alongside Park, said it has had enough.
"The state won't appeal," Attorney General Grant Woods said. "I'm pleased with the decision. I think it was appropriate. We're done with the case."
"The amendment adversely affects non-English-speaking persons and impinges on their ability to seek and obtain information and services from government," the opinion said.
Attorneys who challenged the law applauded the ruling.
"The court realized that we were the real traditionalists. These principles are fundamental and foundational," said Stephen Montoya, a Phoenix civil-rights lawyer who challenged the law.
Added lawyer Enrique Medina: "This is a victory for the state of Arizona. It's exhilarating to know that the judicial system is protecting the rights of people of a different culture and who speak a different language."
Karen Narasaki, executive director of the Washington-based National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, praised the court. "This ruling will have a national impact. These kinds of laws make government less efficient, not more," Narasaki said. "We have all been watching Arizona."
Supporters of Arizona's law, however, called the decision a mistake.
"The notion that a government cannot declare an official language in which it conducts its business is nonsense," said Linda Chavez, president of the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity and former president of U.S. English.
Chavez disputes that such laws are discriminatory or in violation of the First Amendment.
"Language is a mutable characteristic. It can be changed," she said. "People learn different languages."
Chavez sees nothing wrong with requiring that immigrants and other Americans use a common language.
'Quite a stretch'
"It is quite a stretch for the court to have invalidated this law under current interpretation of the First Amendment," said James Weinstein, who teaches constitutional law at Arizona State University.
Though Weinstein calls the Arizona law "ugly" and linked to xenophobic concerns, he believes the court interpretation of the First Amendment is too broad. He said courts have previously ruled that government has the "managerial authority" to regulate the speech of its employees.
However, Paul Bender, former dean of the ASU law school, thinks the First Amendment argument is a good one, especially when applied to communication between elected officials and their constituents.
"I don't think the First Amendment challenge is trivial. In some cases, its overwhelming."
In 1988, voters approved Proposition 106 by a margin of fewer than 12,000 votes out of more than 1.1 million cast. The tally was 584,459 for the measure and 572,800 against.
Two days after the vote, Maria-Kelley F. Yniguez sued the state in federal court. Employed by the Arizona Department of Administration, which handled medical malpractice claims against the state, Yniguez charged that the law infringed upon her right to speak Spanish with Spanish-speaking claimants.
After years of legal wrangling in the federal arena, the case was declared moot by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 because Yniguez no longer worked for the state. It was then that lawyers retooled the suit, found new plaintiffs and resubmitted it on the state court track.