Puerto Rican Organization for Political Action
(PROPA) v. Kusper

490 F.2d 575 (7th Cir. 1973)

A state's simple Official English declaration does not justify practical restrictions on bilingual services, according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Furthermore, the court found that Puerto Ricans residing in Illinois are entitled to election materials in Spanish.<1> This is one of several decisions that prompted Congress to mandate bilingual voting materials in its 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. The case involved a refusal by Chicago officials to provide bilingual voting instructions and election workers in Puerto Rican precincts during the 1972 election. The officials based this denial, in part, on the state's 1969 Official English statute. A U.S. district judge rejected this reasoning and issued an injunction requiring Chicago to provide bilingual voter assistance. Its ruling was affirmed by the appellate court in an opinion delivered by Judge Sprecher on December 18, 1973.

This [Official English] statute (which appears with others naming the state bird and the state song) has never been used to prevent publication of official materials in other languages. In fact, various state and city agencies publish numerous materials and provide many services in Spanish. ... We conclude that no Illinois law prohibits defendants from giving voting assistance in Spanish. ...

United States policy toward persons born in Puerto Rico is to make them U.S. citizens, to allow them to conduct their schools in Spanish, and to permit them unrestricted immigration to the mainland. As a result, thousands of Puerto Ricans have come to live in New York, Chicago, and other urban areas; they are eligible, as residents and U.S. citizens, to vote in elections conducted in a language many of them do not understand. Puerto Ricans are not required, as are immigrants from foreign countries, to learn English before they have the right to vote as U.S. citizens.<2> Their plight is as much a result of government policy as is the plight of Negroes trying to pass literacy in states which had subjected them to segregated, unequal school systems.

Congress responded to the inequities caused by literacy tests by outlawing them in states with low percentages of registrants or voters.<3> In the same act, Congress buttressed the right of Puerto Ricans to vote in the following language:

    Congress hereby declares that to secure the rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of persons educated in American-flag schools in which the predominant classroom language was other than English, it is necessary to prohibit the States from conditioning the right to vote of such persons on ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter in the English language. ...

We agree with the interpretation ... that "the right to vote" encompasses the right to an effective vote. If a person who cannot read English is entitled to oral assistance, if a Negro is entitled to correction of erroneous instructions, so a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican is entitled to assistance in the language he can read or understand. ...

1. The court added that the decision would apply not only to Spanish speakers, but "to any case in which otherwise qualified voters, literate in a language other than English, are able to make a comparable demonstration of access to sources of political information."

2. 8 U.S.C. § 1423.

3. Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973 et seq.