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Official-English Case Bogged Down by Procedure

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week took up an Arizona constitutional amendment requiring the state and local governments to conduct most business in English.

But the justices made clear during oral arguments that they are unlikely to rule on the merits of the 1988 ballot measure, which most observers view as the most drastic in any of the 23 states that recognize English as their official language.

The Arizona measure allows foreign-language classes and federally required bilingual instruction in public schools. But observers have suggested that under the measure, a school district might not be allowed to publish parents' guides in Spanish, for example.

The amendment has never been enforced because of the court challenge.

A federal judge ruled that the measure violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech, prompting the state to stop defending the amendment. But a private group that had promoted the ballot initiative, Arizonans for Official English, stepped in to carry on an appeal.

The Supreme Court on Dec. 4 spent the entire hourlong argument in Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona (Case No. 95-974) focused on procedural questions, such as whether the private group had the proper legal status to mount the appeal.

Under the Constitution, federal courts consider only "live cases or controversies" and do not rule on hypothetical issues.

"It seems to me there's no controversy before the court," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told the lawyer for Arizonans for Official English. He and several other justices suggested that only the state had standing to appeal the lower-court ruling invalidating the law.

The high court was also concerned about whether the case should be considered moot because the state employee who challenged the amendment has left her state job. Maria-Kelly Yniguez, a state worker who sometimes used Spanish while processing the medical-malpractice claims of Spanish-speaking residents, initiated the lawsuit.

"It probably became moot when Ms. Yniguez left her state employment, I would have thought," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said.

Previous Rulings May Fall

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in a 6-5 ruling last year, held that Ms. Yniguez's departure from her state job did not make the case moot because she still had a claim for damages in the case. The court also ruled that Arizonans for Official English had legal standing because the private group had a strong interest in upholding the ballot measure, particularly because the state stopped defending it.

On the merits, the 9th Circuit court said the amendment was an overly broad infringement of the free-speech rights of state employees and the public.

The amendment "significantly interferes with the ability of the non-English-speaking populace of Arizona to receive information and ideas," the appeals court said.

If the Supreme Court throws out the 9th Circuit ruling, as several justices indicated was the likely course, that would leave in place the district court's ruling against the measure. Thus, the measure would still be unenforceable.

Some justices suggested, however, that both lower-court rulings should be thrown out, which would effectively reinstate the official-English amendment, at least until it was challenged again.

IDEA Services at Issue

Separately, the high court last week asked the Clinton administration for its views on a special education dispute from Indiana.

In K.R.R. v. Anderson Community School Corp. (No. 96-323) the justices are interested in whether a district must provide an instructional aide for a physically disabled student whose parents have chosen to enroll her in a Roman Catholic elementary school.

The parents in the case argue that their 9-year-old daughter, who has spina bifida and other disabilities, is entitled to the aide under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Anderson school district was willing to provide an aide if the girl enrolled in public school, but it argued that the federal special education law did not compel the district to provide an aide at the private school.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 1993 case, Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, that an Arizona district's provision of a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student attending a Catholic high school was not barred by the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

But the court stopped short of deciding whether federal special education law requires districts to provide aides to disabled students whose parents choose to send them to private schools.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled for the Anderson district earlier this year, concluding that the IDEA does not require a district to make "comparable provisions for a disabled student voluntarily attending private school as for disabled public school students."

The court will likely act on the appeal after it receives the views of the administration.

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