Oklahoma’s bipartisan congressional delegation this week accused the Obama Justice Department of trying to strong-arm the state into rejecting an English-only referendum by saying it could cost Oklahoma federal funding.
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.
But the Justice Department says Oklahoma lawmakers themselves have already cleared up the problem by changing the referendum in April to remove any conflicts with federal law.
“The proposal appropriately allows languages other than English when required by federal law and, as long as recipients comply with those laws, federal funds are not at risk,” said Justice spokesman Alejandro Miyar.
The Oklahoma Legislature voted in April to ask state voters next year to vote on requiring official state actions be conducted in English and preventing individuals from suing to have state services provided in languages other than English.
In her April warning letter, Loretta King, the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said limiting services could amount to discrimination against persons based on their national origin. She said state programs could lose federal subsidies if they run afoul of discrimination laws.
Mr. Miyar said the letter was designed to let Oklahoma officials know an early version of their legislation might have conflicted with federal law. A week after the letter was sent, the Legislature approved a different version that doesn’t conflict with federal laws, and he said that has cleared up any problem.
Still, the Oklahoma lawmakers, led by Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe, said that by acting even before lawmakers had passed their measure, much less before voters had approved the referendum, the administration was acting outside of the civil rights rules the Supreme Court laid out in a 2001 ruling.
“This was not a letter aimed at enforcing actually occurring violations,” the lawmakers said.
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.
Mr. Miyar said Oklahoma’s original bill had singled out a Clinton administration executive order as lacking binding authority on states, and Ms. King’s letter was intended to alert Oklahoma that other federal laws also apply.
“This was the only English-only bill that we had seen in which Executive Order 13166 was specifically mentioned - and that’s the reason it was important to clarify to Oklahoma that Title VI is the federal law that asserts the requirement for recipients to provide reasonable access to [limited English proficiency] individuals,” Mr. Miyar said.
The Justice Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations has sent letters to state courts warning against dropping specific translation services.