WASHINGTON — The Oklahoma congressional delegation wants U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to explain why the Justice Department got involved in a debate by the Oklahoma Legislature this year over making English the state’s official language. The delegation sent a letter to Holder on Tuesday questioning why his Civil Rights division sent a letter to Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson in the midst of the English-only debate reminding him that state entities receiving federal funds have to observe certain laws regarding people with limited proficiency in English. The letter, sent by all seven members of the delegation, asks Holder to explain his department’s "overreach” and explain further what funding might be in jeopardy if Oklahoma voters approve an English-only amendment next year. The state Legislature approved a resolution in May that will allow state voters to declare that English is Oklahoma’s common and unifying language and that all official state actions must be conducted in English. It would bar lawsuits to have state services provided in languages other than English.
2010 election dateThe question is expected to be voted on in 2010, possibly during the general election in November. The acting director of the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department sent Edmondson a letter in April outlining the state’s obligations. The state can’t discriminate based on English proficiency whether or not it passes an English-only amendment, the Justice Department letter says. The Justice Department letter doesn’t explicitly warn that federal funds could be cut off, though it says entities that receive federal funds are obligated to comply with various civil rights statutes. The day after receiving the letter, Edmondson sent a letter to Gov. Brad Henry, legislative leaders and lawmakers working on the amendment outlining the concerns raised by the Justice Department. "As you will note, the DOJ is in effect warning our state about the possible federal consequences should these proposals pass,” Edmondson wrote. Edmondson told state leaders that the letter suggested the Justice Department could sue the state for civil rights violations. "It is not clear whether we would prevail in such litigation but it appears very clear that we can expect such litigation to follow passage of these proposals,” he wrote. After Edmondson’s letter, the legislation was changed to say that "official actions of the state shall be conducted in English, except as required by federal law.” Charlie Price, a spokesman for Edmondson, said Tuesday that it wasn’t clear whether the change to the legislation would protect the state. "It would depend on the allegations in the lawsuit as to whether this language would help in the state’s defense,” Price said. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said Tuesday, "I support the state’s effort to pass a constitutional amendment making English the official language of the state because it ultimately facilitates better communication across the many lines of diversity within our state. "It is entirely unacceptable for the federal government to try to strong-arm the state by threatening to remove federal funding. I look forward to hearing the Justice Department’s explanation for such behavior,” Inhofe said.