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Arizona Ruling Sets Limit on 'English Only'

Decision last week by state Supreme Court struck down law that required state workers to use only English while on the job.

An Arizona Supreme Court decision to strike down the state's "English Only" law may define how restrictive states can be when designating English as their official language of government.

Arizona, whose population is one-quarter Hispanic, last week became the first state in the US to declare such a law unconstitutional. And while its law was perhaps more far-reaching than any other in the country, the action is being watched closely nationwide. Indeed, it may slow the momentum of a movement that gained prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in enactment of "official-English" laws in 22 states and 40 cities.

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"This ... sets some constitutional limits on how far you can take those measures," says Thomas Saenz, regional counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund in Los Angeles. "That is significant: It sets the outer boundary."

The state's highest court unanimously ruled that Arizona's 28th Amendment to the state Constitution, which was narrowly approved by voters in 1988, violated both equal-protection and free-speech provisions of the US Constitution.

Not only would the English-only rule deny services to non-English-speaking residents, the court wrote, but it would also deny politicians the ability to serve constituents, by prohibiting them from speaking in a language other than English. In Arizona, native American and Hispanic legislators, for example, often converse with their constituents in Navajo or Spanish.

The amendment has been the subject of legal challenges ever since it was adopted in 1988. A previous court case concerning the Arizona amendment went to the US Supreme Court but was declared moot last year.

English-only supporters, however, plan to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court. Still, Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of the Washington-based lobbying organization English First, isn't certain it will be successful, given the court's current makeup.

"It's anybody's guess what they would do," he says, noting that even Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative, expressed opposition to such laws at his confirmation hearings.

Ironically, during the intervening decade of court challenges, the number of Hispanic residents in the state has swelled, as many immigrants from Mexico and Central America have found Arizona to be a haven from anti-immigrant laws and sentiment in California and Texas.

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Arizona's law, the court ruled, differed from official-English laws in other states, in that it proclaimed English to be the official language of the state and agencies. According to the amendment, everyone performing government business must "act" in English "and no other language."

Meanwhile, in other states, official-English laws are regarded as more symbolic and less restrictive. For example, three states - Illinois, Kentucky, and Indiana - make English the official language, with no other provisions. California, on the other hand, has a lengthy and specific law, but it does not prohibit the use of languages other than English, as Arizona did.

Mr. Boulet says the ruling opens a "Pandora's box." He notes a California case in which a man filed a lawsuit, claiming that, during his arrest, he was not read his Miranda rights properly in Spanish. The judge went to a number of states to find out how they translated Miranda. Each had a different version.

The Arizona ruling appears to be "fairly open-ended - that you are entitled to government services in the language of your choice," Boulet adds. With 328 languages spoken in the US, he says, the idea of printing official material in all foreign languages is overwhelming: "If we think we are running out of trees now...."

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