(CN) – An Arizona law that shuttered Mexican-American studies classes in the Tucson Unified School District was “motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears,” a federal judge ruled late Tuesday.
Passed in 2010 by the Arizona Legislature, the law known as “Arizona Revised Statutes §15-112” prohibits the state’s public schools from teaching classes that “promote the overthrow of the United States government; promote resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
Students and their parents challenged the enforcement of the law, claiming it was racist and directed at the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson. The Tucson Unified School District dismantled the program in January 2012 to avoid losing state funding.
Their attorney, Richard Martinez, said by phone that the program featured completely voluntary elective English courses for high school juniors and seniors, and actually contributed to keeping students who were at risk of dropping out in school.
“We took students who were most likely to drop out and not only were they passing the state tests, they were actually attending school, they actually had grade improvements and were graduating at much higher rates and were matriculating to college,” Martinez said. “They were catching these kids as juniors and seniors. Under the most difficult circumstances they were taking what some would call an impossible task and proving that it could be done.”
Ninth Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima, sitting in the District of Arizona by designation, said former state school superintendents John Huppenthal and Tom Horne – both of whom helped pass the law and later found the school district in violation of it – repeatedly used their opposition to the Mexican-American studies program in their 2011 political campaigns.
During his eventually successful bid for attorney general, Horne posted a video to his website saying, “I fought hard to get the Legislature to pass a law so that I could put a stop to the Raza Studies program. And as the attorney general, I will give legal aid to the Department of Education to be sure that we do put a stop to it.”
Huppenthal, who succeeded Horne as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, made ending the program a large part of his platform and said concerns about Mexican-American studies classes had “spread across the state like wildfire.”
But Tashima said that comments Huppenthal posted on his blog were the most damning evidence of racial enmity, citing a post that said, “The Mexican-American studies classes use the exact same technique that Hitler used in his rise to power. In Hitler’s case it was the Sudetenland. In the Mexican-American studies case, it’s Aztlán.”
Tashima wrote, “Huppenthal’s blog comments provide the most important and direct evidence that racial animus infected the decision to enact A.R.S. § 15-112. Huppenthal not only voted for the bill, but was a key player in the effort to get it passed.
“Several of his blog comments convey animus toward Mexican-Americans generally. Because these comments were made soon after the Legislature debated and voted on the bill, they are highly probative of Huppenthal’s state of mind during the relevant period.”
Martinez hailed the ruling as a landmark decision for civil rights. “This case is breaking ground that had quite honestly not been developed. This is really important in terms of our jurisprudence and moving civil rights further down the road,” he said, noting that it could not have come down at a better time, while President Donald Trump was speaking to a rally of supporters in Phoenix.
“That decision could not have come out on a better day. It’s so important that the judiciary is standing as an independent, critical institution in our country and it’s clearly protecting the Constitution. In many ways we’re in a period where the judiciary will be the critical institution that saves our democracy.”
Martinez said that in the last few decades, Arizona has become the “ground zero” for the kind of political climate that allowed A.R.S. § 15-112 to become law.
“We’ve experienced at the state level what we’re experiencing as a country a decade before it happened nationwide,” he said. “As a child I don’t remember an instance of hearing anti-Mexican statements; now I’m an adult hearing it on an almost daily basis. Words I was aware of as a young person, like ‘wetback,’ but never really heard before became very common in Arizona. Arizona became ground zero for those racial sentiments against Mexicans, immigrants and people of color.”
Tashima said the students had proven their First Amendment claim “because both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus, and that “the same evidence supporting the conclusion that defendants violated plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment rights also supports the conclusion that defendants enacted and enforced A.R.S. § 15-112 for illicit reasons, rather than out of pedagogical concern.”
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The case will now go to the remedies phase, where Martinez said his clients will seek to have the law voided as unconstitutional and invalidate its enforcement. They’ll also ask for attorney fees and nominal damages of $1.
“This was a classic civil rights litigation based on a constitutional challenge to the statute and its enforcement, so this isn’t a case about a monetary recovery,” Martinez said.
“It’s about invalidating the actions of the state as an unconstitutional exercise of state power.”