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July 30, 2009

Obama's DOJ Meddles in State Affairs

In this case, my home state of Oklahoma isn't going to take it lying down:

In a stern letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the lawmakers - six Republicans and one Democrat - said Justice officials were meddling in Oklahoma affairs when they issued a pre-emptive April warning letter, well before any potential violation of law would take place.

"The Civil Rights Division letter was dubiously timed at the peak of legislative debate rather than in response to a particular state action," the delegation wrote to Mr. Holder on Tuesday, questioning whether Oklahoma was being singled out and asking what funds would be jeopardized.

The lawmakers questioned why Oklahoma received a warning when other states have similar language requirements. State Rep. Randy Terrill, a Republican and sponsor of the referendum, said the letter was an effort to "blackmail" the state.

"The DOJ's argument is legally unsound and tries to equate English-language laws with national-origin discrimination. No court in the country has ever issued a ruling that supports the DOJ's specious legal claims," he said.

The Oklahoma legislature is putting an English-only ballot prop on next year's ballot. I think that's silly; what we need is an English+ policy which requires government proceedings and papers to be in English plus whatever other languages are appropriate. But it is absolutely Oklahoma's right to put the question to the voters. The national government should stay out of it.

On English+ Policy: It's like this. Bottom line: we absolutely need at a minimum for contact between people and government to be available in English at all times. That goes for all government proceedings, government documents, and government-public interactions (like 911 calls, town hall meetings, etc.). But there is no good reason those things should be provided only and exclusively in English.

No one here is going to argue that, for example, Spanish-only speakers shouldn't bother to call 911 or walk into the SSA office for help. (And don't accuse me of arguing straw men, I just wrote that's not their argument.) Spanish speaking Americans are entitled to those services just like everyone else and there are very good policy reasons for ensuring that they get them. So it wouldn't be a bad idea to provide them in Spanish, a fairly common language in this country.

By extension, the same goes for government proceedings and documents. It's fairly important that communication between the public and the government be straightforward and free from misunderstanding, considering how many papers have to be signed these days under penalty of perjury. It's not out of all reason to suggest that the government provide those documents in languages commonly spoken in the United States, once we've set the English-first baseline.

Now there's no reason to provide translation for every language under the sun. It's too expensive and largely unnecessary. It also depends on where you are in the U.S. The common languages vary considerably by region. The states are free to decide for themselves which are appropriate.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 12:59 PM

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