Court To Review Ariz. 'Official English' Measure
The U.S. Supreme Court last week stepped into the fray over "official English," agreeing to review an Arizona constitutional amendment that bars official government business from being conducted in other languages.
The high court also ruled last week that Congress overstepped its authority in allowing American Indian tribes to sue states that refuse to negotiate agreements to allow gambling on reservations.
The ruling is a victory for states' rights, as it limits congressional authority to subject states to lawsuits. However, it is unclear what impact the decision will ultimately have on Indian gaming, which often finances tribal schools.
The 1988 Arizona measure involved in the official-English case, which has not taken effect because of a legal challenge, goes further than the largely symbolic laws that make English the official language in 22 other states. It requires the state, school districts, and local governments to conduct most business in English. Exceptions include foreign-language classes in public schools and bilingual education "to the extent necessary to comply with federal law."
If the measure took effect, Arizona teachers could speak Spanish, for example, to immigrant children who were learning English, but a school district might not be able to publish parents' guides or election information in Spanish.
The case could also affect congressional official-English proposals, which some say could have the effect of barring federally funded bilingual education. (See Education Week, March 20, 1996.)
Three lower federal courts have ruled that the Arizona measure is an infringement of the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In a 6-5 ruling last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said the law "significantly interferes with the ability of the non-English-speaking populace of Arizona to receive information and ideas."
An Arizona group that sponsored the amendment appealed to the Supreme Court, which announced March 25 that it would review the case, Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona (Case No. 95-974) during its next term.
However, the high court expressed concern about whether it could reach a ruling on the merits of the case, and asked the parties to address the question of whether Arizonans for Official English has legal standing to defend the state constitutional amendment. The state itself stopped defending the measure after it lost in a federal district court, but the 9th Circuit court allowed the private group to pursue an appeal.
The Arizona amendment was challenged by a bilingual former state employee who sometimes used Spanish in processing medical-malpractice claims.
The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida (No. 94-12) involves the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a 1988 law that responded to states' demands for more authority over gambling within their borders.
Many tribes have funneled profits from the $4 billion-a-year Indian gaming industry into social programs, including education. (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1994.)
The 1988 law allows tribes to operate casinos on their reservations in states that permit such gaming, and requires those states to negotiate gaming compacts with tribes. If a state refused to negotiate in "good faith," the law allowed tribes to sue in federal court. The law em-powered courts to order more negotiations, and then mediation. If that failed, the law gave the secretary of the interior the power to reg-ulate gaming on the reservation.
In 1991, Florida officials refused to discuss some games the Seminole tribe wanted to run, asserting that state law did not permit them. The tribe sued, and the case eventually landed in the Supreme Court. The justices agreed with the state's argument that the gaming law had violated the Constitution's 11th Amendment, which generally protects states from being sued in federal courts.
But observers said last week that it is unclear what impact the decision will ultimately have.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the law's administrative processes, saying that compacts could be negotiated with states or the secretary of the interior without court intervention. But it is unclear whether the high court endorsed that reasoning.
The court "cannot rewrite the statutory scheme in order to approximate what we think Congress might have wanted had it known that [the gaming act] was beyond its authority," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion. "If that effort is to be made, it should be made by Congress."
If the ruling is interpreted as striking down the entire law, states would have virtually no power to restrict Indian gaming, the situation that existed prior to the law's enactment.
"The Seminole decision now allows tribes to go forward without any role for the states," S. Timothy Wapato, the executive director of the Washington-based National Indian Gaming Association, said in a statement.
Congress held hearings on the 1988 law last year and proposals to amend it are pending. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)