Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—October 5

1995—In 1988, the people of Arizona adopted by ballot initiative a state constitutional provision, Article XXVIII, that establishes English as the official language of Arizona and that provides generally that the state and all its political subdivisions—and “all government officials and employees during the performance of government business”—“shall act in English.” In Yniguez v. Arizonans for Official English, the en banc Ninth Circuit rules, by a 6 to 5 vote, that Article XXVIII violated the First Amendment rights of a former state employee—and awards her one dollar in nominal damages.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt writes not only the majority opinion but also a concurring opinion that attacks dissenting Judge Alex Kozinski, who reads settled law as establishing that “government employees have no personal stake in what they say in the course of employment because that speech is the government’s, not theirs.” Showing his contempt for the citizenry, Reinhardt puffs about the “true horror [that] could happen if Judge Kozinski’s view prevailed”: “Government employees could be compelled to parrot racist and sexist slogans, to hurl hateful invective at non-English speaking people asking for assistance, to publicly declare their loyalty to political parties, and to bow toward the national or state capitol three times a day.” Only in Reinhardt’s fevered mind are there budding majorities clamoring for such measures.

Unfortunately for Reinhardt, he gets carried away in more ways than one, as the Supreme Court’s reversal of his ruling in 1997 (in Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona) shows. In her unanimous opinion for the Court, Justice Ginsburg severely scolds Reinhardt and the Ninth Circuit: “The Ninth Circuit had no warrant to proceed as it did. The case had lost the essential elements of a justiciable controversy [when the plaintiff left state employment in April 1990] and should not have been retained for adjudication on the merits by the Court of Appeals.” Reinhardt’s theory that the plaintiff had a live claim for nominal damages against Arizona was defective in two respects, Ginsburg explains. First, the cause of action under which the plaintiff sued creates no remedy against a state. Second, in an earlier order in the case, Reinhardt had barred Arizona from further participation in the case as a party and permitted it only the status of an intervenor. Ginsburg notes this “lapse” in Reinhardt’s reasoning: “The Ninth Circuit did not explain how it arrived at the conclusion that an intervenor the court had designated a nonparty could be subject, nonetheless, to an obligation to pay damages.”

In light of disputes over the meaning of Article XXVIII, Ginsburg also faults the Ninth Circuit for failing to use the certification process to obtain the Arizona supreme court’s authoritative reading of the provision. Noting that the Ninth Circuit “had superintended the case since 1990,” Ginsburg observes: “In litigation generally, and in constitutional litigation most prominently, courts in the United States characteristically pause to ask: Is this conflict really necessary?” Any such attention to limitations on the exercise of judicial power is clearly not characteristic of Reinhardt.

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