ACLU Applauds Two Court Decisions Supporting Language Rights

January 15, 1999 12:00 am

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Friday, January 15, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO–This week, two important cases challenging discrimination based on language met with success in both the United States Supreme Court and a California state court, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California announced.

On Monday, January 11, the Supreme Court refused to revive an English-only initiative passed by Arizona’s voters declaring English Arizona’s “official” language. In California, the Sonoma County Superior Court approved a settlement ensuring that the California Labor Commissioner provide non-English speaking persons filing claims for unpaid wages with materials and services in their own languages.

Legal representation and support on both these cases were provided by the Language Rights Project, sponsored by the ACLU of Northern California, the Employment Law Center, and the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco.

“These decisions demonstrate that both federal and state courts still understand the serious harm caused by language discrimination, which is prohibited by well-established civil rights laws,” said Christopher Ho, staff attorney for the Employment Law Center, one of the attorneys working on the California case.

“In the settlement of our case, the Labor Commissioner recognized his obligation under state law to provide access to non-English speaking persons. By approving that settlement, the court reaffirmed the critical importance of ensuring that all aspects of government be available to all, irrespective of their primary language.”

That case, Martinez v. Millan, began when Ramiro Martinez, a Spanish-speaking worker, filed a claim for back wages against his former employer with the California Labor Commissioner. At the hearing to discuss a possible settlement of the wage dispute, the Labor Commissioner failed to provide an interpreter even though Martinez spoke no English. Martinez later filed this class action representing the interests of non-English speaking persons throughout the state.

“In Martinez, the Labor Commissioner had violated both the Labor Code — which specifically requires the agency to provide interpreters at hearing and interviews — as well as other state laws requiring each state agency that serves a sizable language minority population to provide interpreters and written materials in appropriate languages,” said Ed Chen, an ACLU of Northern California staff attorney who also represented the plaintiffs.

“In the settlement, the Labor Commissioner agreed to provide qualified interpreters at all proceedings and in all communications with the general public as well as translate all appropriate forms and written materials.”

In the Supreme Court case, Ruiz v. Hull, the high court refused to review an Arizona Supreme Court decision voiding an initiative passed by Arizona voters in 1988. The Court ruled that the initiative, which made English Arizona’s official language, violated the First Amendment and unduly obstructed non-English speakers’ access to government.

The Arizona initiative, Article 28, would have required all state agencies to “act in English and in no other language.” The Arizona Supreme Court held that by prohibiting public employees and officials from using non-English languages in the performance of their duties, the amendment unduly burdened the employees’ First Amendment rights as well as the rights of those they served.

The Arizona Court observed that Article 28’s adverse impact fell almost entirely on Latinos and other national origin minorities. The ACLU of Northern California along with the National ACLU and others filed an amicus brief in Ruiz.

The ACLU of Northern California’s Language Rights Project helps combat language-based discrimination in the workplace, in businesses, and in government services. The Language Rights Hotline (1-800-864-1664) offers free multi-lingual telephone advice and referrals in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese to workers who have been subject to discrimination based on their language or accent.

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