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Legal moves snarl English-only proposal

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Legal moves snarl English-only proposal
Metro calls for measure on ballot despite lawsuit
By Janell Ross • THE TENNESSEAN • November 22, 2008

A judge could decide early next week whether to block a vote on an amendment that would force all Metro Nashville government business to be done in English.

Davidson County voters are set to consider the charter amendment on a Jan. 22 ballot. It would bar Metro government from providing translators or offering services or publications in languages other than English unless the council votes to make exceptions. A second measure on the same ballot would open the way for more frequent petition-driven Metro charter amendments.


Early voting in the two-issue special election, which carries an estimated $300,000 price tag, is slated to begin Jan. 2. But this week, a flurry of new legal maneuvers and arguments emerged in the 2-year-old debate about language in Nashville.

On Friday, attorneys representing plaintiff Rosa Quinteros asked a Davidson County Chancery Court judge to temporarily halt all election preparations. Attorney David Randolph Smith also called on the court to set a hearing as soon as possible to consider Quinteros' lawsuit against Metro Nashville over whether the English-only measure is even constitutional and whether it asks government to overstep its bounds.

The measure would bar Quinteros, an El Salvadoran immigrant with limited English proficiency, from communicating with local government, Smith said. It also calls on a local government to treat those with limited English proficiency differently from others, he said.

"Free speech applies to every person in the United States, foreign-born, native or alien … ," said Smith. "Just because you can get 5,000 signatures from people saying Kurdish people can't vote or red-headed people can't vote, you can't put it on the ballot. There is a limit."

Councilman Eric Crafton, the driving force behind the measure, could not be reached for comment Friday. An attorney representing Crafton and proponents of the English-only measure said voters do have a right to consider the measure, and it does not violate anyone's right to free speech or ask Metro government to overstep its authority.

"They seem to be suggesting that people don't have a right to amend their government," Jim Roberts said. "The truth is that the people have the right and the power to abolish the Metro government or direct it in the way they see fit."

Metro's legal department filed documents with the court Friday describing the English-only measure as unconstitutional but calling for it to appear on the Jan. 22 ballot anyway.

"We can't discuss the details of our claims now that litigation has begun," said James Charles, an attorney with the city. "But we do dispute that they can bring this type of action before the referendum."

Metro also asked the court Friday to officially bring Crafton into the court case.

The latest chapter in the English-language saga began Wednesday when Quinteros, an immigrant living in Davidson County and granted temporary asylum status by the U.S. government, filed suit against Metro Government and the Davidson County Election Commission.

Roberts said he suspects Quinteros is a political puppet being used by opponents of the English-only measure who fear that they cannot defeat it at the ballot box. The move will backfire, he said.

"I think there is going to be some backlash at immigrants for this," he said. "Here's a woman to whom we've stretched out our hand, and she's kicked us in the shins."

Attorneys shield client
On Friday, Quinteros's attorneys declined to make their client available for comment because of fears she may be harassed. She also didn't return a message left at her home.

Smith described his client a feisty and brave woman who is concerned about the impact of the English-only measure. The case is not an outgrowth of any existing effort to defeat the English-only measure, Smith said.

A quick search of the Web produced a variety of comments, threatening and otherwise, about the suit and Quinteros.

Contact Janell Ross can be reached at 615-726-5982 or jross1@tennessean.com.

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