Juan Carlos Escamilla v. Sonia Cuello – 8/17/2012

August 31, 2012

Arizona Supreme Court Holds that A.R.S. § 38-201(C) Requires Candidates for Public Office to Possess Sufficient Proficiency in the English Language to Conduct the Duties of the Office.

On December 29, 2011, San Luis Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla brought a special action seeking to disqualify Alejandrina Cabrera as a candidate for city council.  He alleged that Cabrera’s name should be excluded from the ballot for the March 2012 election because she cannot read, write, and speak the English language as required by A.R.S. § 38-201(C).  After an evidentiary hearing, the superior court found that Cabrera was not sufficiently proficient in English to perform as a city council member for San Luis and precluded her from the ballot.  Cabrera filed an expedited appeal to the Supreme Court pursuant to A.R.S. § 16-351(A)

On appeal, the Supreme Court rejected Cabrera’s contention that the superior court erred in issuing its order twenty-nine days after Escamilla filed the complaint.  Although A.R.S. § 16-351(A) does direct trial courts to “hear and render a decision” on an election matter within ten days after the action is filed, the Supreme Court has long interpreted the statutory time limit as directive and not jurisdictional.  See Brousseau v. Fitzgerald, 138 Ariz. 453, 456, 675 P.2d 713, 716 (1984).  Because Cabrera was unable to demonstrate that she suffered prejudice as a result of the delay, the Court determined that there was no error in this case.

The Court then affirmed the superior court’s decision to preclude Cabrera from the ballot pursuant to A.R.S. § 38-201(C).  Arizona law has required English proficiency as a qualification for public office since before statehood.  A.R.S. § 38-201(C) currently provides that “[a] person who is unable to speak, write and read the English language is not eligible to hold a state, county, city, town or precinct office in the state, whether elective or appointive, and no certificate of election or commission shall issue to a person so disqualified.”  According to the Court, when read in conjunction with Arizona’s Enabling Act and Constitution, § 38-201(C) means that to qualify for a public office, a candidate must possess sufficient proficiency in the English language to conduct the duties of the office.  To construe the statute in any other way would be incompatible with Arizona’s fundamental law.  The Supreme Court rejected Cabrera’s contention that this interpretation was unconstitutional because there is no constitutional right to seek office and the language requirement reflects a legitimate concern of the Arizona Legislature. 

Because the testimony below supported the trial court’s conclusions that Cabrera failed to meet this requirement, the Court held that superior court properly precluded her from the ballot. 

Justice Brutinel authored the opinion; Chief Justice Berch, Vice Chief Justice Bales, and Justice