Here’s a rather disturbing ruling. In Arizona, a judge has ruled that a woman cannot run for city council because she doesn’t speak English well enough, even though about 84% of that city’s residents speak Spanish and she could have a translator help her with what she doesn’t understand.
The woman does speak some English, she just doesn’t speak it well enough for the judge. It’s not clear whether this was a state judge or a federal judge, but apparently the federal law that made Arizona a state contains this language:
“The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without aid of an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature.”
But this is a local officer, not a state officer. The law may still apply if cities are viewed legally as divisions of the state.
When Alejandrina Cabrera speaks English, it doesn’t quite roll off of her tongue the way it does when she speaks in her native Spanish.
Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish to the residents of San Luis, Arizona, she speaks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with a bit less conviction, when she switches to English. That’s something she admits, but she says that she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives.
In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. After all, most of the people there, by all accounts, will speak in English and in Spanish. In the comfort of communal settings, they’ll speak the way they’re most comfortable.
“You go to a market, it’s Spanish,” Cabrera told The New York Times. “You go to a doctor, it’s Spanish. When you pay the bills for the lights or water, it’s Spanish.” …
But Cabrera’s lawyers argued in court that her disqualification was truly unfair and may be unconstitutional, seeing as there is not an actual standard for a specific level of proficiency for a council candidate.
It also leaves open many questions about the democratic process, among them: How far can you take the issue of proficiency? Would there be a problem if someone just had too thick of an accent for people to understand? Does it matter if a candidate can speak expertly with most of her constituents, who also may share a similar grasp of a language? And should it be a decision made by the courts, or should the voters be able to choose an elected official who appeals to them most, or choose to vote against her if they feel she can’t grasp the language well enough? Should there be a test to determine English language proficiency? Does it matter if most documents and laws in the area are also provided in Spanish for residents to be able to understand?
I hope this ruling is appealed. There are some interesting issues here. But it seems to me that the voters should get to decide whether she speaks good enough English for them. The fact that there is no standard for proficiency does offer a strong constitutional argument. And all of this is purely political. It was the current mayor, a man she has worked to remove from office, who filed the original lawsuit trying to keep her off the ballot. And it’s worked, so far.