Supreme Court allows Ariz. English-only law to fall

But movement supporters say they will campaign for similar initiatives

January 12, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court dealt at least a temporary setback yesterday to the campaign to make English the official language of government, refusing to revive the nation's strictest English-only law.

The Arizona law, adopted by the state's voters as a constitutional amendment in 1988, was struck down unanimously by the state supreme court in April. That was the decision the justices voted to leave intact yesterday, without explanation.

But the court's order, supporters of English-only proposals said, will not stop their efforts to obtain enactment of similar laws elsewhere. Without the Arizona provision, English-only laws remain on the books in 25 other states, according to Eric Stone, research director for U.S. English, a group that promotes such measures. Maryland has no such provision.

Decision was expected

Stone said his group expected the court's action yesterday, noting that the Supreme Court "is reluctant to interfere with a state court interpretation of its own state law." He said U.S. English is helping to promote an English-only measure in the Utah legislature, which is scheduled to vote next week. If that fails, he said, promoters will seek to put the measure on the ballot in Utah in 2000.

The campaign saw success during 1998, with approval of English-only laws by the Missouri legislature and by voters in Alaska. Stone said that advocates of the idea are considering returning to Arizona, in hopes of putting together a less strict measure for a future voter initiative.

The Arizona measure made English the state's official language; it declared that "this state and all political subdivisions of this state shall act in English and no other language." The measure provided for only a few narrow exceptions -- such as teaching a student a foreign language.

Law goes too far

In striking it down, the state supreme court said the ban on other languages went so far as to forbid a public school teacher to discuss with a Spanish-speaking parent a child's education; barred any town hall discussion by officials in any language but English; and forbade any discussion of applications for welfare, housing or other benefits in other languages.

The Arizona measure had also been struck down by a federal appeals court in 1995. But the Supreme Court, in an earlier phase of the dispute, wiped out that ruling as premature. That action shifted the dispute to the state supreme court.

A new appeal to the Supreme Court by the promoters of the Arizona measure argued that the states need constitutional guidance on their authority to adopt such proposals.

Other rulings

In other actions yesterday, the Supreme Court refused to review new appeals that test the constitutionality of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy concerning gays in the military, and that challenge New York City's use of zoning laws to exclude from Manhattan strip clubs and stores that sell sexually explicit items.

The court also turned aside a plea by the Clinton administration to rule quickly on the constitutionality of a federal law that bans TV and radio advertisements that promote gambling casinos. Another test case on the issue, however, is awaiting the court's attention.

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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