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Court: Candidates not proficient in English can be barred from seeking office
PHOENIX – Don't have a decent command of the English language?
Then forget about running for public office in Arizona – or even being appointed to one.
In a decision with statewide implications, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that candidates who are not proficient in English cannot even try to become an elected or appointed official. The justices said the requirement, which has existed since territorial days, is justified.
The decision stems from a case involving San Luis resident Alejandrina Cabrera, who was disqualified from the ballot earlier this year over her language skills. The justices of high court waited until Friday to explain their decision, which upheld a decision by a Yuma County Superior Court judge earlier this year stating that Cabrera did not meet the English qualifications.
“Such a requirement helps ensure the public officer will in fact be able to understand and perform the functions of the office, including communicating with English-speaking constituents and the public,'' Justice Robert Brutinel wrote for the unanimous court.
And Brutinel brushed aside arguments that the requirement is unconstitutional.
“There is no constitutional right to seek office,'' he wrote. “And the language requirement reflects a legitimate concern of the Arizona Legislature.''
The court also noted that Friday's ruling does not permanently disqualify Cabrera from running at some point in the future for the San Luis City Council – the post she was seeking when she was disqualified from the ballot earlier this year – or any other office.
“Should she obtain a sufficient English proficiency to perform as a city councilmember, she could then run for that office,'' Brutinel wrote.
The court acknowledged that they voided a voter-approved constitutional amendment more than a decade ago which had adopted English as the state official language.
But Brutinel said the issue there was that the language would have barred public officials from communicating with their constituents who do not speak English, “thus impeding the constituents in obtaining access to their government and limiting the political speech of public officials.''
He said this law does not preclude anyone from speaking languages other than English but instead requires a “functional ability'' in English, “which enhances rather than impedes their ability to communicate with their constituents and the public.''
Friday's ruling may not be the last word. Attorney John Minore who represents Cabrera, said he is likely to seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Minore said the state courts have imposed what amounts to an arbitrary standard.
“The statute doesn't say at what level of English'' someone must be proficient, he argued. And Minore pointed out that his client is a native-born U.S. citizen who is a high school graduate.
“She can read and she can write it,'' he said. And he noted the court accepted her ability to read English but never tested her writing skills.
“They just said she can't speak it very well,'' he said.
If nothing else, Minore said the requirement – at least in this case – is an infringement on not only Cabrera's rights but also that of voters.
“The people should decide whether they want her as a representative or not,'' he said. “Isn't that what America is about?''
The legal fight started late last year when San Luis Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla filed suit to disqualify Cabrera, a U.S. citizen and graduate of Kofa High School, as a candidate for the March 2012 election. The pair are political foes, with Cabrera having led a recall effort against Escamilla.
That challenge was based on a law that says a person must be able to “speak, write and read the English language'' to be eligible to hold any state, county, city, town or precinct office, appointed or elected.
Yuma County Superior Court Judge Jeff Nelson, after questioning Cabrera, agreed she did not meet the qualifications and ordered her name removed from the ballot. The justices of high court upheld that ruling.
In her appeal, Cabrera said she meets the minimum requirements. Her attorneys said she showed she was able to read council minutes printed in English aloud, and was able during her testimony to engage in basic conversation using English words.
But Brutinel said more is required.
He said the Arizona Constitution specifically says that public officials need to “understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without the aid of an interpreter.'' Brutinel said the fact that specific language is not part of the statute Nelson used to disqualify her is irrelevant, saying the constitutional mandate prevails.
In this case, Brutinel wrote that Nelson had more than enough evidence to conclude that Cabrera failed to comprehend questions posed to her in English.
“Although she read aloud from various city council meeting documents, Cabrera could not answer elementary questions about what she had read or what had occurred at these meetings,'' Brutinel said.
The high court acknowledged that state law does not require any specific level of proficiency, other than the ability to conduct the duties of the office.
Brutinel noted that William Eggington, listed as a nationally known expert in sociolinguistics, testified that Cabrera reads at a ninth- or 10th-grade reading level. And the judge said if the law required only reading proficiency, that would qualify her to run for office.
“But the statute also requires the ability to speak English,'' Brutinel wrote. And he said Eggington testified that Cabrera has “minimal survival proficiency'' in spoken English.
“She is able to perform certain courtesy requirements and maintain simple face-to-face conversation on familiar topics,'' Eggington said. But he said there is a “large gap between (her) ability to in speaking English and what is needed to perform city councilman duties.''
Brutinel emphasized that the law requires only a “functional ability'' to read, speak and write English.
“The statute does not authorize a literacy test or an intelligence test and does not require anything other than function comprehension of English in everyday language,'' the judge wrote. “Here, Cabrera's inability to comprehend English was clear.''