High Court Rebukes Federal Judges for Flouting Federalism

By Murray, Frank J. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 4, 1997 | Go to article overview

High Court Rebukes Federal Judges for Flouting Federalism


Murray, Frank J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The Supreme Court roundly castigated federal judges yesterday for disrespecting federalism by wasting 4 1/2 years considering an Arizona voter initiative that forces state workers to speak English on the job.

The unanimous high court said the Arizona Supreme Court should decide what that 1988 state law means and said the federal case became "moot," or legally academic, in 1990 when the plaintiff resigned her state job.

"Federal courts lack competence to rule definitively on the meaning of state legislation," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a ringing declaration.

"Respect for the place of the states in our federal system calls for close consideration of that core question" of whether a constitutional challenge is needed, she wrote in vacating orders of the U.S. District Court in Arizona and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court declaring the English-only law unconstitutional.

"The Ninth Circuit, in the case at hand, lost sight of these limitations," the high court declared in a blunt criticism of a circuit court that it reverses unusually often. So far this term the high court overturned 10 of the 11 9th Circuit cases it has decided.

That the 37-page decision did more than dismiss the case for mootness delighted states' rights advocates who say such an approach may blunt other constitutional attacks, including the pending challenge to California's Proposition 209 limiting affirmative action in contracting and public jobs.

"That part is good. We have a federalism argument, an abstention argument, on 209," said Anne M. Hawkins, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is involved in both cases.

"It could allow a state court to determine the meaning of 209. Having said that, I don't know if the 9th Circuit is going to toe the line more than they have done in any other case," Miss Hawkins said.

Although yesterday's action technically reinstates the ban on speaking any language but English in most state offices, it appears to be still blocked from enforcement by an Arizona Supreme Court stay. That court is deciding a separate challenge that Justice Ginsburg said will clarify its impact.

"Once the Arizona high court has addressed the question - just what does Article 28 mean? - the resolution of any remaining federal constitutional question may be greatly simplified," Justice Ginsburg said in announcing the opinion from the bench. …

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