Arizona English measure advances
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX — State lawmakers moved Thursday to make English the official language of Arizona, even as they have yet to figure out how to finance teaching it in public schools.
The 6-3 vote by the House Judiciary Committee would constitutionally require all "official action" of government be conducted in English. The measure still requires approval by the full Senate and House — and, ultimately, by state voters — before becoming law.
There is reason to believe it will pass, in that it is similar to a measure approved by voters in 1988. That provision, however, never was enforced. The Arizona Supreme Court declared it illegal, saying that it violates federal constitutional rights.
The justices said the 1988 measure harmed the ability of non-English-speaking people to obtain access to their government. They also concluded the amendment limited the political speech of elected officials and public employees.
Those problems have now been resolved, according to Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.
His new version specifically allows government employees, including legislators, to communicate "unofficially" with people in any language. But any official action, he said, must be in English.
For example, he said, a lawmaker could write a letter, even on official stationery, on any subject. But the official actions of the Legislature, he said, can be only in English.
One thing less than clear is how it would affect elections.
The measure would require ballots and election materials be printed in English.
Pearce acknowledged that there are federal laws dealing with voting rights. But he said he believes these do not require ballots be available in multiple languages, but only bar states from requiring that voters be fluent in English.
He conceded, though, his view of the law is not shared by everyone. He added that Congress may not renew the Voting Rights Act in 2007.
The measure also includes various other exceptions designed to survive constitutional challenge.
For example, police and courts could use other languages to protect the rights of crime victims and defendants. The state also could print materials in other languages to encourage trade or tourism.
And it even contains a specific exemption allowing the use and preservation of American Indian languages.
The Legislature approved a similar measure last year, but as a change in state law. That allowed Gov. Janet Napolitano to veto it, which she did.
Napolitano noted at the time that the state was — and still is — out of compliance with a federal court order to provide adequate funding to schools to teach students classified as "English language learners.'' Given the failure to properly fund English programs, she said, "making English the only language for official action is contradictory at best."