Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona

PETITIONER: Arizonans for Official English
LOCATION: Sheriff Printz's Office

DOCKET NO.: 95-974
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 43 (1997)
ARGUED: Dec 04, 1996
DECIDED: Mar 03, 1997

Barnaby W. Zall - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Robert H. Pohlman - Argued the cause for the respondents
Robert J. Pohlman - for respondents

Facts of the case

Maria Kelly F. Yniguez, an Arizona state employee, sued the state and various state officials alleging provisions of the state constitution, which declare English "the official language of the State," and allow state residents and businesses to bring suit to enforce the article, violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Yniguez used both English and Spanish in her work and feared that the article would require her to face discharge or other discipline if she did not refrain from speaking Spanish while serving the state. The District Court dismissed the case against the state because of its Eleventh Amendment immunity, but held the article on English unconstitutional. The Court of Appeals accepted the case after Yniguez resigned and ultimately affirmed the District Court's ruling that the article violated the Free Speech Clause and announced that Yniguez was entitled to damages from the state.


Was a challenge to a state's efforts to make English its official language a justiciable controversy after the state employee who mounted the challenge left her government job?

Media for Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 04, 1996 in Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 95-974, Arizonans for Official English and Robert D. Park v. Arizona.

Mr. Zall, and let me request of you, Mr. Zall, and also of your colleague that the Court is very interested in hearing a full discussion of the issues relating to standing, mootness, and jurisdiction, so we hope you'll devote a substantial part of your arguments to that.

Barnaby W. Zall:

Yes, Your Honor.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This First Amendment facial overbreadth case involves a Government employee who wanted to write her official documents in a language her supervisor did not understand.

Even if her choice of language on the job was speech, which is was not, it was the Government's speech, not hers.

Under Capital Square, Government runs no risk of a First Amendment violation when it restrains its own speech.

Official English statutes, which are simply restraints on the Government's own speech, do not violate the First Amendment.

It's a political choice.

One point was not treated sufficiently in the briefs.

Last term in County Commissioners v. Umbehr, a Government contractors case, the Court said that the Government's interest in speech depends on the speaker's proximity to Government.

The closer to Government, the greater the Government's interest.

Umbehr described a speech spectrum ranging from private citizens, in whose speech the Government has little interest, to Government employees, whose closeness to Government means that the Government is very interested in their speech.

Government contractors fell somewhere in between Government employees, who had the closest relationship to Government, and other speakers with less close relationships, and though not said in Umbehr, since Government is actually closest to itself, Government speech, the Government speech cases would be... would place very high on the Umbehr speech spectrum, beyond--

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Mr. Zall, this particular Government, at least the Attorney General, long before this case was decided by the district court said that the constitutional provision in Arizona did not prohibit the use of a language other than English where necessary to assure the fairness and effectiveness of the delivery or services to members of the public.

Why didn't that end this controversy?

The then plaintiff, the sole plaintiff in effect got all the relief that she sought, which was the assurance that she wouldn't be fired if she used a language other than English where necessary to assure the fair delivery of her service.

Barnaby W. Zall:

--Your Honor, we agree with the Attorney General's opinion as to its construction of Article XXVIII on the First Amendment grounds.

We also agree that the Attorney General appropriately considered equal protection matters.

Our concern is that the Attorney General's opinion relied on a case which, subsequent to the opinion, this court vacated on mootness, and that was an equal protection issue.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Did the Attorney General withdraw that opinion as the official interpretation of the State's executive?

Barnaby W. Zall:

It did not, Your Honor.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

So that's the law as far as the executive's... as far as official Government in Arizona is concerned, so my question is, why didn't this case end?

Wasn't it moot at that point?

Barnaby W. Zall:

Your Honor, I believe the plaintiffs in the case said that the next Attorney General could issue another opinion and the Attorney General's opinion was not binding on the courts, therefore they felt that they still had a viable case, and the district court disagreed with the Attorney General's interpretation and decided not to abide by it, as did the Ninth Circuit.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Well, is... it's not a question of what the district court independently might think the law was.

The question was, was the plaintiff at any risk of losing her job when the official interpretation, the State's interpretation, was that what she was doing was all right?

Barnaby W. Zall:

I think the answer to that question is she was at no risk of losing her job, Your Honor.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Well, didn't... what controversy was left, then, if she was at no risk of losing her job?

Barnaby W. Zall:

I believe, Your Honor, that although that was... that's the correct interpretation, she did not agree with that and asked the court on a slightly different ground, which is that she was not... excuse me.