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Suppose Congress passed a bill written in Spanish and the President signed it. Everything about the bill and the procedures by which it was written and passed were completely normal, other than the language. (Assume everyone in Congress, as well as the President, is fluent in Spanish.) Would the fact that the law is written in a language other than English have any effect on its enforceability, other than the practical difficulties caused by many people not understanding it?

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    I think that fluency in Spanish is not needed for your particular example. Neither the congressmen, nor the POTUS have deep understanding in all legislative matter that they produce. The fact that it is in Engish (alone) doesn't help them much. There are other mechanisms, of course.
    – fraxinus
    May 11 at 16:54
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    @Someone Extremely frequently legislators don't completely know what they're voting on. Many bills are thousands of pages long. And tons of legislation gets passed on matters where few, if any, members of Congress are subject matter experts.
    – reirab
    May 12 at 0:29
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    @Someone so are the ordinary citizen when invited to vote. Bad, but still a minor drawback compared to the popular alternatives.
    – fraxinus
    May 12 at 6:52
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    @Someone That is part of the reason for Congressional Committees. As a Senator or Representative, it would simply be impossible to be completely conversant on all of the nuances of all of the bills, so they are worked on by committees which are staffed by other Congressmen and their committee staffers who are supposed to be knowledgeable enough to decide that the bill moves on.
    – CGCampbell
    May 12 at 9:24
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    I know someone who grew up in Puerto Rico, and was used to writing "dolares" instead of "dollars" when writing checks - who had to deal with people in the states assuming that it was not, in fact, US currency, which of course it is. A check is a legal document, so it's a similar situation. I would assume that most local bills passed in Puerto Rico are also written in Spanish, so it at least applies there. May 12 at 13:48

3 Answers 3

59

It would indeed be valid and legally enforceable. The Constitution places no limits on what languages bills must be written in. The Constitution specifically allows each house of Congress to make its own rules for how it passes bills, so, even if a house of Congress had a rule requiring its bills to be in English (which they don't, as far as I know,) they could simply change the rules and then pass the bill.

From a practical standpoint, though, enforceability would also require courts to be able to discern Congress' intent from the bill. As such, unless we're expanding the assumption to "the vast majority of the U.S., including the courts in all parts of the country, are now fluent in Spanish," then it's exceedingly unlikely that Congress actually would pass a substantive bill in a language other than English. Even without assuming all of Congress were fluent, it's possible that they could pass a resolution in Spanish as a gesture, but they would almost certainly not pass a substantive bill in Spanish (or any other language than English) due to the enforceability problems it would cause with courts (and, if relevant, regulatory agencies, etc.)

Aside from the courts needing to be able to understand the normal meanings of the words in Spanish, there would also be the problem of the complete lack of any legal history of Spanish words in U.S. law (or even in common law in general.) Much of legal interpretation is steeped in history of what particular words have meant (and/or been ruled by courts to mean) in past laws. Throwing all of that legal history out the window by switching to another language would be quite problematic when trying to craft a bill on any substantive subject matter. Suffice it to say that crafting the definitions section for such a bill would be quite a task.

So, yes, it would technically be legal and it would indeed be the law, but doing it with any substantive subject matter (without assuming that most of the population now understands Spanish) would be so problematic for enforceability in practice that they wouldn't actually consider doing it.

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Yes

The United States does not have an official language.

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    wow! I didn't know this until today! (wikipedia ref)
    – Aaron F
    May 11 at 15:44
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    Something I learned from watching The West Wing.
    – Darren
    May 11 at 17:09
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    Muhlenberg legend - "The Muhlenberg legend is an urban legend in the United States and Germany. According to the legend, the single vote of Frederick Muhlenberg, the first ever Speaker of the US House of Representatives, prevented German from becoming an official language of the United States." (1794). Though Grammar Girl presented a different story (or maybe she fell for it). May 12 at 1:29
  • True, but possibly not relevant. I live in a country with two official languages; but almost all the legislation is written in a third language - not one of the official ones. yesterday
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Under Article VI of the Constitution, treaties have the force of law, and the United States has sometimes ratified treaties in languages other than English.

For example, the treaty signed with Morocco in 1786 was originally in Arabic, translated into English, and was ratified by the Continental Congress in 1787. It was in force when the Constitution itself was ratified.

The treaty of alliance between the U.S. and France in 1778 was another example. It was presented to the Continental Congress in parallel French and English columns for ratification, but declares, “the present Treaty was originally composed and concluded in the French Language.” At that time, French was a more widely-used international language than English, and gentlemen in America were expected to know both languages. (This put George Washington in an embarrassing situation where, after he signed a document in French surrendering Fort Necessity, during the French and Indian War, he had to admit he did not understand what it said.)

Treaty of Alliance between France and the United States, 1778

As English has only become a more dominant international language since then, modern U.S. treaties are almost all in English, or at least state that the English text and the version in some other language are equally authentic.

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    Per that link, though, "It was the English translation provided by Barclay, however, that was ratified by Congress and that served as the definitive text for American purposes." As far as I know, this has typically been the case with treaties. Congress generally ratifies an English version of the treaty and it is the English version that is considered authoritative for purposes of U.S. law.
    – reirab
    May 12 at 4:56
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    @reirab I haven’t researched this in great detail, but my understanding is that, in a hypothetical dispute between the U.S. and Morocco while that original treaty was still in force, the negotiators would in theory consider the Arabic text to be the controlling version. I’ve also heard lawyers arguing that the French version of a treaty should be consulted to resolve an ambiguity in the English one.
    – Davislor
    May 12 at 5:08
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    As far as what actually had force of U.S. law, it was the English version that was actually ratified by the Senate, per the National Archives. Negotiators can say whatever they want, but only what is actually ratified by the Senate has force of U.S. law.
    – reirab
    May 12 at 7:28
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    he "All sides are authentic and binding" got odd with the Nuremberg trial basis, which was French, English and Russian and actually did differ some... Or the treaty between Italy and Ethiopia, which were actually totally different ones!
    – Trish
    May 12 at 8:23
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    I refer to the Treaty of Wichale
    – Trish
    May 12 at 8:32

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