Court reviews state's English Justices to rule on law requiring public use of 'official' language

Ariz. case under appeal

Spanish speakers claim violations of free-speech rights

March 26, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER THOMAS W. WALDRON CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE — WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, taking on a major

melting-pot issue, agreed yesterday to rule on the constitutionality of governments' attempts to make English their official language.

Close to half the states -- a total of 23 -- have laws declaring English to be the chosen language, and the idea seems to hold continuing popularity. The proposal has arisen repeatedly in Maryland, but has been vetoed twice. It died this year in the General Assembly.

In Congress, the House a week ago endorsed the idea that ability to speak and write English be required for some immigrants entering the country legally, and an added priority for entry for those on waiting lists. That measure died amid maneuvering over immigration legislation, but it is likely to be revived later.

At issue before the Supreme Court will be the nation's strictest English-only law: an amendment to the Arizona Constitution, adopted by a 1 percent margin of the state's voters eight years ago. It was struck down by a federal appeals court in October.

Under that amendment, English must be used in all official government functions and actions, and by all government officials and employees while on the job. No government document is legal or effective unless it is in English. The amendment allows only narrow exceptions.

It was challenged in court by a Spanish-speaking state employee and a state senator of Hispanic ancestry who said it interfered with their free-speech rights.

State officials have refused to defend the measure in court. But the chief sponsor of the ballot initiative -- a group known as Arizonans for Official English -- has kept the dispute going. It filed the appeal the justices will consider.

In striking down the provision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco declared, by a 6-5 vote, that the amendment violates the First Amendment rights of people who do not speak English. The use of English, it said, "cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution."

The Supreme Court has not ruled in nearly 70 years on laws that favor English over other languages. In 1927, it nullified a Hawaii law that strictly limited the use of languages other than English, especially Japanese.

And in 1923, the court struck down a Nebraska law that forbid teaching any non-English language before the eighth grade.

In recent years, the court has faced the language issue only once: Two years ago, it refused to revive a federal government guideline against the use of English-only rules in workplaces. A lower court had struck it down.

In Maryland, the General Assembly approved an official English bill in 1994. But Gov. William Donald Schaefer vetoed it. A similar bill passed last year, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed it.

This year, state Sen. John W. Derr, a Republican from Frederick, proposed a bill to declare English "the language of government functions and actions."

He withdrew the measure Feb. 15. Mr. Derr said yesterday that he and one of the groups working for the proposal, U.S. English, had met and decided "this was not really quite the time" because of Mr. Glendening's recent veto. He said the proposal might be brought up again.

The Supreme Court is expected to hold a hearing on the Arizona case next fall and to issue a ruling by the summer of 1997. It also will rule by then on two other cases that it voted yesterday to review.

Endangered species

The court agreed to decide whether people who want to stop the government from protecting an endangered species have a right to sue.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that only those who are seeking to protect wildlife on the endangered list may go to court to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

That ruling is challenged in an appeal by two Oregon ranchers and two irrigation districts in that state. They sued to stop the government from imposing new limits on releases of water from two government reservoirs -- water the ranchers and irrigation districts wanted for economic and recreational use.

The government imposed those limits to protect the downstream habitat of two endangered species of fish, known as Lost River and shortnose suckers. The challengers contend that those fish were doing fine without government protection.

Punitive damage income

In a third case, the court agreed to clear up a dispute among lower federal courts over tax liability in punitive damage cases.

The issue reached the court in an appeal from a Kansas family which was required to pay federal income taxes on more than $3.7 million in awarded punitive damages. A widower and his children sued after the man's wife had died from toxic shock syndrome after using Playtex tampons.

Several lower courts have ruled that federal taxes must be paid ** on punitive damages added on to a verdict to punish the wrongdoer, rather than compensate for the wrong done.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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