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Alvarez v. State of Utah (2001)

09 January 2001 Published in Resolved Cases

Equal Protection, Free Expression, and First Amendment Rights to Free Speech and Redress of Grievances - On November 7, 2000, Utah voters approved Initiative A, "English as the Official Language of Utah." Stating that English is the sole language of government, the law provides for several exceptions, allowing languages other than English, for example, when required by law, for public health and safety, and in public education.


Concerned that the measure would be read generally to prohibit the government and the people from communicating in any language other than English, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, along with attorneys Marlene Gonzalez from the Multicultural Legal Center and Milo Steven Marsden and Adam Price from Bendinger, Crockett, Peterson & Casey, filed a lawsuit on behalf of elected and appointed officials, government employees, nonprofit organizations, and an individual plaintiff challenging the constitutionality of the initiative. Legal support also came from Ed Chen at the ACLU of Northern California, Antonia Hernandez, Vibiana Andrade, and Hector Villagra at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Kenneth Kimerling at the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, Christopher Ho at the Employment Law Center of the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco, and San Francisco attorney Robert Rusky. We also filed a request for a court order that the law not go into effect until the serious constitutional issues with the initiative were resolved.

After a trial in January 2001, the Utah district court issued a 15-page ruling that dramatically limited the law. According to the court, in order to pass constitutional muster the law cannot be read to prohibit government employees and elected officials from communicating in languages other than English. Similarly, the court concluded that the law’s exceptions must be broadly construed to permit the government to provide essential services, including drivers’ license exams, in languages other than English. That ruling, along with Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s commitment to investigate any claims that the statute is being abused, accomplishes the goal of the litigation -- namely to ensure that government agencies do not deny linguistic minorities equal access to government processes, programs, and services based on a misreading or misapplication of the statute.

Plaintiffs in the case included Alicia Alvarez, Salt Lake City Mayor Ross Anderson, Salt Lake City Administrator for Minority Affairs Archie Archuleta, Ogden City Council Member Jesse Garcia, San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, the Multicultural Legal Center, late Senator Pete Suazo, the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and State of Utah Hispanic Advisory Council Chair James Yapias.

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