High court won't take English-only question Challenge to language law in Arizona had technical defects

March 04, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court backed off yesterday from the debate over whether to make English the official language, leaving the constitutionality of the idea uncertain for another year or more.

Acting unanimously, the court dismissed an Arizona case that questions the power of states and the federal government to require English as the only language for government actions or programs. The court's move could reinstate an English-only law in Arizona.

The challenge to the Arizona law, the court said, was procedurally flawed and thus should never have reached the Supreme Court. The court sharply criticized a federal appeals court in San Francisco for striking down Arizona's English-only provision when the lawsuit filed against it had so many technical defects.

The justices noted that the Arizona Supreme Court would now consider the constitutional issue in a separate case. A ruling by that court will likely propel the issue back toward the Supreme Court, perhaps for the next term starting in October.

Robert D. Park, who drafted the Arizona measure and now heads a national organization, English Language Advocates, said the court's action yesterday means that "for all practical purposes," the Arizona provision "has been restored to its original form."

The English language mandate has drawn opposition from such groups as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the American Jewish Congress and Arizonans Against Constitutional Tampering. Their leaders could not be reached last night for comment.

The issue is likely to remain a live one in Congress. The House approved an English-only bill in August; that measure died at session's end. New bills are pending or are being prepared.

The controversy is still developing in state legislatures. Twenty-four states now designate English as the required official language; the oldest such law, in Louisiana, dates to 1811. More recent state laws parallel the strict language of the Arizona measure.

In Maryland, the proposal has been approved by the General Assembly but was nullified by vetoes by the governor in 1994 and 1995. The issue has not been pushed in Annapolis since then. However, state Sen. John W. Derr of Frederick has offered bills that would revive the idea.

Arizona's voters put the English requirement into their state constitution in 1988. The mandate has never been enforced, primarily because of the challenge to it.

Under the measure, English was declared the official language of the state, and government and public schools were required to use "English and no other language" in their activities.

It was challenged by a state employee, Maria-Kelley F. Yniguez, who processed medical malpractice claims for the state. Yniguez spoke and wrote in both English and Spanish, and frequently used one or the other or both in dealing with citizens using state services. She stopped using Spanish after the measure passed.

Although Yniguez left the state government in 1990 and took a job in private industry, her case continued in court -- even though, the Supreme Court said yesterday, her legal challenge should have ended then.

State officials have interpreted the English-only rule as being less rigid than its wording specifies, but they were rebuffed in trying to put forth that view in federal courts. That, too, sparked criticism from the justices.

With all the flaws in the case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court, the lawsuit had become a dead letter. The court ordered lower federal courts to drop the matter and leave it to the Arizona Supreme Court.

In another action yesterday, the court ruled 7-2 that someone convicted in federal court of using a gun in a crime involving drugs or violence must always serve a separate five-year sentence in addition to any other prison sentence.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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