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High court passes chance to rule on English-only law


March 3, 1997
Web posted at: 2:20 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Opponents of an Arizona law requiring state employees to use only the English language for official business lost a Supreme Court challenge to the law Monday on a technicality.

The justices unanimously threw out an earlier court victory for the opponents because the state employee who challenged the law had long since left her job. The court did not comment on the merits of the law itself, but their ruling Monday apparently reinstated it in Arizona.

Arizona voters adopted the amendment -- which requires that English be "the language of the ballot, the public schools and all government functions and actions" -- to their state constitution in 1988. Maria-Kelly Yniguez, at the time a state employee who helped people with medical malpractice claims, filed suit to be allowed to use Spanish on occasion in her job.

The state's attorney general had already handed down a ruling allowing occasional use of another language. But a federal judge ruling on Yniguez's suit struck down the law, saying it infringed on free speech.

Then-Gov. Rose Mofford did not appeal the decision, but a group calling itself Arizonans for Official English, intervened and pursued appeals.

Yniguez left her job with the state in 1990, for reasons unrelated to the law or the lawsuit.

"At that point, it became plain that she lacked a still-vital claim for prospective relief," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote.

In the court's 37-page ruling, Ginsburg also cited "grave doubts" that Arizonans for Official English had the proper legal standing to continue the appeals when the state dropped out.

The court sent the case back to a local district federal court with orders to dismiss the case entirely, leaving the English-only law still on the books in Arizona, although state officials have said they will not enforce it.

English-only laws have been passed in 23 states. Monday's court action does not affect them.

In other action Monday, the court:

  • Let stand rulings that force home improvement retailer Home Depot to defend itself against charges of job bias against women in 10 Western states.
  • Ruled that a sentence imposed under federal law for having a gun while committing a crime must be added to the sentence a defendant is serving for state convictions.
  • Admitted it had wrongly agreed to decide an Alabama case regarding whether state courts could approve class-action suit settlements without giving all class members the option of excluding themselves. The justices dismissed the appeal as "improvidently grant" because the federal issue involved was not presented properly to the Alabama Supreme Court.
  • Rejected without comment a challenge to an Ohio law requiring private schools to give ninth-graders proficiency tests and denying high school diplomas to those who cannot pass the tests.
  • Affirmed that the court-made "doctrine of equivalents" -- its roots dating to an 1814 high court decision -- is not supplanted by the federal Patent Acts of 1952. The doctrine prevents inventors from skirting patent-infringement by including insignificant differences into their products or processes.
  • Rejected without comment arguments from former Beach Boy Brian Wilson that he should not be forced to defend himself against a libel lawsuit filed in New Hampshire. Beach Boy Al Jardine and Brother Records Inc. filed suit against Wilson and co-author Todd Gold in the Granite State after missing California's filing deadline. The lawsuit involves their book "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
  • Rejected without comment a Cincinnati's newspapers appeal of a lower court ruling that closed to the public a civil courtroom proceeding dealing with deadly riots at an Ohio prison in 1993.

Correspondent Anthony Collings contributed to this report.


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