English only

Lino Lakes got plenty of scrutiny recently when its City Council voted to approve an English-only ordinance that bars Lino Lakes from spending public dollars on the translation of meetings and materials — unless they deal with public safety or public health. It spawned renewed debate over whether English-only laws should be expanded, as they have been in other counties and states.

Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a case that — while unrelated to any English-only legislation — shows why the issue is more complicated than the debate portrays. There have to be exceptions to the rule.

The court upheld the conviction of a man who was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct. At his trial, a juror was removed because the juror asked in the middle of the trial that testimony be translated into Spanish. The prosecutor asked the judge to remove the juror because she may not have understood some testimony already given.

The Court of Appeals upheld the man’s conviction and said the lower court was correct, saying:


The ability to communicate in the English language is one of several qualifications for jury service. Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 808(b)(4). A juror should be able to understand the evidence, the arguments of counsel, and the instructions of the district court; and a juror should be able to deliberate with other jurors.

The court would have provided interpretive services for the juror, had it known she needed them.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has embraced English-only legislation. What would the effect be on a case like this or in other cases where jurors don’t understand English well enough?

Oklahoma voters will decide in November whether to pass a law requiring English to be used in “official actions,” in the state, but it doesn’t define what an “official action” is, or whether jurors who don’t speak English well enough would be allowed to sit on juries.

But states often make exceptions in the case of the courts. South Dakota, for example, has an English-only statute, but provides court translation services. The Supreme Court has organized a committee to study how well they work.

In Wisconsin, several counties have adopted English-only laws, but provisions are also made for court services.

In any English-only discussion, perhaps it’s best to start with what exceptions there will be?