Challenged English-Only Rule : Panel Rejects Court Clerk Plea

Times Staff Writer

The county Civil Service Commission has refused, in a 3-2 decision, to hear a case of alleged discrimination in which 13 Southeast Municipal Court clerks were prohibited by the court's judges from speaking Spanish during working hours.

The decision Wednesday was quickly assailed by Robert Arias, county affirmative action officer, who predicted that it "will give the green light to other courts, county departments and even the private sector" to impose similar English-only rules.

"This is unheard of, simply unheard of," Arias said.

In an unusually strong recommendation made last November, Arias' office had urged the commission to order judges Porter de Dubovay, Russell Schooling and John Bunnett to withdraw an English-only rule they imposed on court employees last March. The rule prohibited the use of any language but English during working hours.

But Deputy County Counsel Halvor Melom and Richard Katzman, a private attorney hired by the three judges, argued Wednesday that the commission did not have jurisdiction over the courthouse employees.

'Problem for Courts to Decide'

"This is a problem for the courts to decide," Katzman told the commission.

However, Arias and Richard Reyna, attorney for Local 660, Service Employees International Union, have alleged that the English-only rule violates 20-year-old federal civil rights laws, state fair employment practice laws and county employment codes.

"Frankly, I am shocked by this decision," Reyna said.

"We believe this vote will make other employees fearful, because the main factor here is the chilling effect on minorities and on those who speak Spanish as a primary language," he said.

Reyna said he plans to appeal the commission's decision to Los Angeles Superior Court within 90 days. Meanwhile, he said, the union has filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Fair Employment and Housing Practices Commission.

Arias predicted the dispute will attract nationwide attention because of its far-reaching implications for the millions of working Americans who speak a language other than English as their primary language.

"The U.S. Department of Justice is watching this case and had a representative here today," Arias said.

"The bottom line is that this could have been handled effectively at a local level, but it has now gone beyond that."

Arias criticized the three commissioners who refused to hear the case, saying they have forced the issue into the courts, where he said the "county and the taxpayers are going to end up paying a lot of money, and then lose this case."

Commissioners Cecelia Sandoval and Tom Salata dissented from the vote, arguing that by not hearing the case the commission was indicating it has no jurisdiction over questions of discrimination.

"I'm really troubled by this," said Salata. "We are talking here about one (court) division out of 25 in the county having a rule . . . that is going to put a chill on employees."

Voting to refuse to hear the case were commissioners Ernest Goodman, George Nojima and N. Keith Abbott.

On Nov. 28, the Civil Service Commission delayed ruling on the matter after county counsel Melom argued that the 13 deputy clerks had not been disciplined in any way.

Reyna argued in November and again Wednesday that discipline does not have to be imposed in order for discrimination to occur.

Judge Issued Rule

De Dubovay, the Southeast court's presiding judge, issued the English-only rule along with the other judges after several clerks who do not speak Spanish complained that they could not understand the conversations going on among other clerks.

One English-speaking clerk had told her supervisor she feared the Spanish-speaking clerks were talking about her, county officials said.

According to Arias, the county can require that English be spoken at work only if it is a "business necessity."

In the Southeast Court in Huntington Park, Arias noted, about 80% of the business is transacted in Spanish because of the large Latino population in the area.

None of the judges could be reached for comment.

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