By Dennis Barron
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, seAdd a Comment