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Court Gives English-Only Measure New Life Arizona Initiative Would Affect All State Government Functions

In the face of a growing backlash to the use of Spanish as a second language in much of the nation, the Supreme Court said Monday it would consider reviving an Arizona voter initiative that makes English the only language for “all government functions and actions.”

In a brief order, the justices agreed to hear an appeal filed by a group known as “Arizonans for Official English,” which sponsored the measure in 1988. Its leaders say the government must not only recognize English as the “official language” but use it in all of its daily dealings with the public.

Twenty-three states have adopted measures declaring English the “official language,” but most do not go as far as the Arizona initiative.

Last year, a U.S. appeals court, on a 6-5 vote, struck down the Arizona measure for violating the free-speech rights of a Spanish-speaking state employee.

The Supreme Court, led by two conservative Arizonans in Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, seems inclined to reverse that ruling.

In recent years, the high court has generally upheld the wishes of the majority of voters, and limited the free-speech rights of public employees.

For example, in a closely watched abortion case in 1991, the court said doctors and nurses who take federal funds do not have a free-speech right to encourage abortion. Writing for the court, Rehnquist said public employees do not have a right to espouse a message that conflicts with the views of the government that employs them.

Lawyers for the English-only advocates cite that decision as precedent for reversing the appeals court.

The case will be heard in the fall.

Also Monday, the Supreme Court:

Agreed to use an Oregon case to decide whether people may use the Endangered Species Act to file lawsuits accusing the federal government of doing too much to protect a species.

Agreed to decide in a Kansas case whether people must pay income taxes on punitive damages they are awarded in personal-injury lawsuits.

Turned down Louisiana’s bid to deny Medicaid-funded abortions for women impregnated as a result of rape or incest. Federal law allows Medicaid-funded abortions for such women.