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U.S. Asks Court To Strike Florida 'English-Only' Petitions

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The fate of an initiative that would declare English the official language of Florida grew more uncertain last week, after the U.S. Justice Department urged a federal appeals court to strike the measure from the Nov. 8 ballot.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was expected to issue a ruling in the case, Delgado v. Smith, late last week.

The suit, filed by opponents of the initiative, argues that the proposal should be declared invalid under the federal Voting Rights Act because its supporters failed to circulate Spanish-language petitions to place it on the ballot in six counties whose election procedures are covered under the law.

U.S. District Judge James W. Kehoe ruled against the opponents last month, prompting the appeal to the 11th Circuit Court.

Last week's legal maneuvering marked the second time in recent weeks that opponents of so-called "official English" proposals have turned to the courts to strike such measures from their states' ballots.

Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit overturned a lower-court ruling that would have barred a similar mea4sure from going before Colorado voters this week.

A third official-English initiative in Arizona has not been subject to a legal challenge. All three proposals are said to be favored by a majority of their states' voters.

In a Nov. 2 brief filed in the Florida suit, Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds argued that the federal district judge in the case erred "in concluding that the intitative petitions at issue are not election materials provided by the state of Florida."

"The failure to require their distribution in Spanish as well as English violates the bilingual provisions of the Voting Rights Act," he added.

Jeffrey T. Browne, coordinator of Speak Up Now for Florida, a group that opposes the official-English measure, said the Justice Department's intervention in the suit "incredibly strengthens our case."

The plaintiffs' odds of winning a favorable ruling from the appeals court, he said, have shifted from "30-70 to 70-30" as a result of the action.

Mark A. Dienstag, a lawyer representing the Florida English Campaign and U.S. English--state and national groups that back the measure--said Mr. Reynolds's brief failed to cite "a growing body of case law" that supports the position that petitions are not covered under the Voting Rights Act. He also alleged that the brief cited some cases out of context.

"We're very confident that the appellate court will see it our way" and deny an injunction to declare the election invalid, said Mark LaPorta, director of the Florida English Campaign.

Tom Olson, public-affairs director for U.S. English, also noted that the brief leaves the door open for the court to provide "injunctive relief against future violations" while allowing the election results to stand.

Because the Justice Department did not intervene in the Colorado case, Mr. Browne noted, some observers may interpret its intervention in Florida as a political move to boost Hispanic support for George Bush, the Republican Presidential candidate, on the eve of the election.

But he said he did not view the act as a "cynical pre-election move'' because it is consistent with the Justice Department's previous interpretations of the Voting Rights Act. He noted that plaintiffs in the Colorado case had cited a department memorandum interpreting the Voting Rights Act to cover petitions.

"Their authority got challenged, and they found a good test case," he said, adding that opponents of the measure in Colorado did not have "as strong a case" as the Florida plaintiffs because they were not able to show "as much state intervention" in the approval of the petitions.

Mark R. Weaver, a Justice Department spokesman, explained that that the department did not intervene in the Colorado case because it did not have time to "thoroughly examine all the revelant law" prior to the 10th Circuit Court's ruling in the suit.

"The Justice Department is not taking a side on whether it is a good idea or bad idea" to make English a state's official language, Mr. Weaver said. "We're saying that the Voting Rights Act requires that petitions for ballot questions must be circulated bilingually in covered areas."

"Although it is ironic that this question had to do with official English," he said, "if the referendum involved was about car insurance or a state lottery, the issue would be the same."

Leaders of the official-English movement have sharply criticized bilingual programs that teach students in their native language to bridge the transition to English.

Opponents fear that schools could relax or eliminate native-language instruction if the ballot measures are approved.

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