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Arizona law on officials’ English proficiency upheld

An Arizona Supreme Court decision upholds a state law requiring public officials to be able to comprehend and use the English language.

An Arizona law requiring public officials to be able to comprehend and use the English language is constitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday as it explained why a woman was barred from running for a city council seat.

The justices issued their unanimous opinion six months after upholding a trial judge’s ruling that Alejandrina Cabrera wasn’t sufficiently proficient in English to serve as a city council member in San Luis, a mostly Spanish-speaking border town in southwestern Arizona.

In challenging Cabrera’s candidacy, San Ljuis’ mayor cited a 1913 Arizona state law that says anyone “who is unable to speak, write and read the English language is not eligible” to hold public office.

Both the Arizona Constitution and the 1910 federal law that created the state in 1912 require that state and local government officials be able to read, speak, write and understand English, the opinion noted.

The requirement “manifests a legitimate concern that those who hold elective office be minimally proficient in English in order to conduct the duties of their office, without the aid of an interpreter,” Justice Robert Brutinel wrote for the court. “Such a requirement helps ensure that the public officer will in fact be able to understand and perform the functions of the office, including communication with English-speaking constituents and the public.”

Saying previous rulings already allowed states to set qualifications for public offices, the justices rejected Cabrera’s argument that Arizona’s law denies her constitutional right to participate in government.

A Yuma County Superior Court judge questioned Cabrera in court and had a linguistics expert interview her before ordering that Cabrera be removed from the ballot.

Cabrera said her English was good enough in San Luis because of the prevalence of Spanish-speakers. She also said racism was involved.

Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla has denied racism was an issue. He said English must be used in meetings with state and federal officials.

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