State won't appeal judge's ruling in English-only case

Group plans to petition the Supreme Court

Posted: Tuesday, May 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE - The Knowles administration won't ask the Alaska Supreme Court to keep the state's English-only law on the books. But Alaskans for a Common Language, the group that put the issue on the ballot, will.

Dillingham Superior Court Judge Fred Torrisi ruled in March that the law unduly restricts opportunities for free expression and violates the rights of citizens to receive information and ideas.

The law, approved overwhelmingly by Alaska voters in 1998, was challenged in state court before it was enforced.

"The governor feels it's time to put this divisive issue behind us, and he is in sincere agreement with Judge Torrisi's ruling," said Bob King, a spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles.

"Neither the governor nor Lt. Gov. (Fran) Ulmer supported the English-only initiative for a variety of reasons which mirrored the judge's decision invalidating this law," King said.

While the lieutenant governor has to approve all proposed measures before they go on the ballot, "the lieutenant governor doesn't make legal rulings like that," King said. "Concerns were raised in the preliminary discussions (back in 1998). But that's not a call she can make."

Anchorage lawyer and Republican activist Ken Jacobus said the judge in the case should have separated out unconstitutional parts of the initiative and left the bulk of it alone.

"I think there are parts of it which are constitutional and there's a severability clause," said Jacobus, who helped the original backers of the petition.

As for the governor's decision not to appeal, Jacobus said that was a political call.

"The governor decided not to appeal Katie John (a case involving subsistence). Anything that would have a negative effect on Natives he won't appeal."

The measure required state and local governments as well as public corporations to use English for all functions and actions. Exemptions were made for medical emergencies, criminal proceedings and meeting federal Native American Languages Act requirements.

Supporters said the measure would allow the continued use of Alaska Native languages, while Native groups said it would discourage or ban such use.

A decision from the Alaska Supreme Court isn't likely soon.

"It's going to take some months just to brief this," said Kevin D. Callahan, who's handling the appeal for Alaskans for a Common Language.

Supreme Court rulings often come as long as two years after an appeal is filed.

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