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Justices Skeptical Of English-Only Law

By Anthony Collings/CNN

WASHINGTON (Dec. 4) -- An Arizona law that would require state employees to speak only English while conducting official business is in trouble at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Because of technicalities, many of the justices seem likely to reject an attempt to reinstate the English-only law. They indicated that view during oral arguments today.


The technicalities include the fact that the Arizona's state government is no longer defending the English-only law. Justice Anthony Kennedy said "there's no controversy" before the Supreme Court on some of the issues, indicating he would vote to permit a lower court ruling to remain in effect. That lower court ruling threw out the English-only law. If the Supreme Court lets that ruling remain in effect, the English-only law dies.

In 1988, a slim majority of Arizona voters passed a ballot initiative amending the state constitution to require that English be used for official state business. State employees not using English could be prosecuted.

One state employee, Maria-Kelly Yniguez, challenged the law in court. Her job was to process medical malpractice claims. She used Spanish when dealing with people who spoke only Spanish. She feared she could be prosecuted for that and said the law violated her free speech.

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A federal lower court agreed and Declared the law unconstitutional. At that point, the state of Arizona dropped out of the case and stopped defending the law. A group of citizens stepped in to continue defending the law in court. Whether that group of citizens can substitute for the state government is one of the issues in the case.

Legal experts say there is no way to predict what the Supreme Court will do, but based on the tough questioning of the group's lawyer, many court observers expect the justices to Declare the case "moot," no longer a live controversy. If so, the lower court ruling remains in effect and the English-only law dies.

The technicalities are so important that the court never got to the heart of the original case -- the free speech issue -- during today's arguments.

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