By Dennis Baron
For perhaps the first time ever, a candidate was struck from an Arizona ballot for poor English. Judge John Nelson of the Yuma County Superior Court ruled that Alejandrina Cabrera cannot run for city council in the border town of San Luis because she doesn’t know enough English to fulfill her duties. The State Supreme Court upheld that decision on appeal.
90% of San Luis’ 25,000 residents speak Spanish as they go about their day. But Cabrera’s candidacy was challenged by the town’s mayor, a political rival who admits that his own English could be better, because Arizona law requires elected officials to speak English. A court-appointed sociolinguist determined that Cabrera possessed only survival-level English skills, and so Judge Nelson disqualified her.
Cabrera, an American citizen, appealed the decision, arguing that since the law doesn’t specify how much English an office-holder needs to know, it should be up to the voters and not the courts to decide if she is qualified. Arizona has one of the most restrictive official English laws in the country, but a close reading of that law shows that even if her English is halting, she should be back on the ballot.
The Arizona constitution, adopted in 1910 in anticipation of statehood, which was granted two years later, imposes an English requirement on some state officials: “The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without the aid of an interpreter, shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature” (Art. XX, sec. 8).
Above: Article XX, sec. 7, of the 1910 Arizona Constitution provides for secular public schools which “shall always be conducted in English.” Below: Sec. 8 of the constitution also requires “state officers” and members of the legislature to know enough English to do their jobs without the help of a translator.
The requirement — with its reference to interpreters — is aimed at those Arizonans who speak Spanish or Native American languages, but it only covers legislators and “state officers,” defined in article V of the constitution (as amended in 1992) as the governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general, and supervisor of public instruction.
Reporting to Congress on the applications of Arizona and New Mexico for statehood in 1911, the House Committee on the Territories forced New Mexico to drop a similar language qualification for office holders from its 1910 constitution (Art. 21, sec. 5) because it was potentially unconstitutional and a clear violation of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. But the Committee did not object to Arizona’s language rule for elected officials.
Above: A provision of the New Mexico constitution of 1910 requiring English for office holders and legislators was rejected by the U.S. House as unconstitutional. No such objections were raised about the almost-identical Arizona language requirement. Below: The House Committee on the Territories comment on Art. 21, sec 5, of the New Mexico constitution. The report adds, “No such language restriction is found in the Constitution of the United States and the committee believes that part of the enabling act containing such provision should be repealed” (Report on the Constitutions of New Mexico and Arizona. U.S. Serials 6078, House rpt. 33, p. 6.).
In 1912, New Mexico dropped its language restriction for office holders, but Arizona did not, eventually expanding its own English language rule to cover all state, county, and municipal workers. Arizona Revised Statutes 38-201 (1988) mandates that, “A person who is unable to speak, write and read the English language is not eligible to hold a state, county, city, town or precinct office in the state, whether elective or appointive, and no certificate of election or commission shall issue to a person so disqualified.”
More recently, in 2006 voters approved the state’s current official language law, Article XXVIII of the Arizona constitution, which states, in part, “Official actions shall be conducted in English.” The law further defines official actions to “include all laws, public proceedings, rules, publications, orders, actions, programs, policies, departments, boards, agencies, organizations and instrumentalities of this state or political subdivisions of this state.” That effectively constrains all government employees from the governor to the dog catcher to speak and write English when they’re doing anything “official.”
But so far as the Arizona constitution is concerned, the need to use English “without the aid of an interpreter” applies only to legislators and state officers. The law sets no standard of usage for the English of any other public employees. Presumably they can use translations or interpreters as necessary to carry out their official duties. And neither Art. 28 nor ARS 38-201.c specifies how much English one needs to know to hold office, or how to measure that English.
Cabrera could have employed the services of an interpreter for official council business any time she felt that her ability to read, write, or speak English needed a boost. For anything unofficial, she could use Spanish. According to the state constitution, languages other than English may be used when an employee acts unofficially, “if the representatives of government make clear that these . . . communications are unofficial and are not binding on this state or a political subdivision of this state” (Art. XXVIII, sec. 1.2.i). On the job, Cabrera could use Spanish to speak informally with constituents, order lunch, or chastise the mayor who challenged her right to be on the ballot.
Given the law’s silence on exactly how much English a city council member needs to know, how to measure that knowledge, and whether a candidate can be stricken from a balllot if a judge can’t understand her English, Alejandrina Cabrera was right to argue that it’s up to the voters, not the courts, to decide whether she can represent them on the San Luis city council.
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.