Alaska Superior Court Hears Challenge to State's Restrictive English-Only Law

October 12, 2001 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


ANCHORAGE–Alaska Superior Court Judge Fred Torrisi will hear oral arguments today in a challenge to Alaska’s English-Only law brought by the Alaska Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups.

The case Alakayak, et al. v. State of Alaska, was filed in February 1999 by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the Alaska Civil Liberties Union (AkCLU) and the North Slope Borough (NSB), on behalf of dozens of Alaskans whose constitutional rights would have been violated under the law.

In legal papers filed with the court, the groups said that the English-only law, passed by ballot initiative in November 1998, violates a number of citizens rights under the state Constitution, including the rights to free expression and free speech, the rights of all Alaskans to have access to their government and to petition their government for redress of grievances, and the right to equal protection under the law.

The initiative is worded so broadly that it covers oral communication as well as written documents, noted Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union.

“”In most situations, Alaskans would be prohibited from communicating with government workers in any language other than English, even if the government worker happens to know other languages,”” she said.

In March 1999, the groups succeeded in obtaining a court order preventing Alaska’s English-Only law from taking effect. Judge Torrisi’s March 1999 order suspended enforcement of the initiative until a hearing could be held and a decision on the constitutional issues in the case could be reached.

The Alakayak lawsuit was then consolidated with another lawsuit filed in Dillingham at around the same time, Kritz, et al. v. State of Alaska, on behalf of three plaintiffs in Togiak challenging the English-Only law on state and federal constitutional grounds.

While the case was pending, the sponsors of the English-Only ballot initiative moved to intervene as third parties to argue in defense of the law. Last year, the Alaska Supreme Court granted the sponsors, Alaskans for a Common Language, permission to defend their initiative in court.

“”We were all very pleased that the court prevented this law from taking effect in 1999, and we are convinced that our collective efforts will result in a finding that the initiative is unconstitutional,”” Rudinger said.

Heather Kendall-Miller, a staff attorney in the Anchorage office of NARF, explained that her group is bringing this lawsuit “”to protect the rights of Alaska Native villages to freely choose, shape and control the forms of community self-governance that exist in their local communities.””

“”Alaska Native villages have a fundamental community right to govern themselves through whatever structures they may choose, which necessarily includes the right to do so in the Native languages of their communities, the only languages their citizens can understand,”” she explained.

Attorneys for the Alakayak plaintiffs are Eric Johnson; Heather Kendall Miller for NARF; Bill Caldwell, of Fairbanks, for the AkCLU; and Todd Sherwood with the North Slope Borough. Doug Pope of Pope & Katcher represents the Kritz plaintiffs. Johnson and Pope will present arguments for the plaintiffs. Assistant Attorney General Jan Hart deYoung will present arguments for the State, and Kevin Callahan of Patton Boggs will present arguments on behalf of the sponsors of the initiative. Arguments are scheduled to last approximately 90 minutes. The judge is not expected to issue his ruling from the bench tomorrow.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release