January 19, 2001
By Warren Richey
The Christian Science Monitor
WASHINGTON, January 16, 2001 A dispute over an Alabama English-only law has become an important forum to determine the scope of US civil rights laws.
In a case set for argument today, the US Supreme Court is considering whether a state requirement that driving-license applicants must speak and understand English is a form of illegal discrimination based on national origin.
At issue is a policy adopted by Alabama officials to give all driving-license exams exclusively in English, regardless of any special needs by residents from foreign countries. The policy was adopted after Alabama lawmakers in 1990 ratified a constitutional amendment declaring English the official language of the state.
The license-exam change posed no problem for most Alabama residents. But for those like Martha Sandoval, a Mexican national who speaks little English, it was a major setback in her ability to live and support her family in Alabama.
So in 1996, Ms. Sandoval sued Alabama, seeking to have the English-only driving-license test declared an illegal form of discrimination.
Her case has set the stage for an important confrontation between civil rights and immigrant advocates on one side and English-only, states' rights, business, and other conservative groups on the other.
"This case is the Super Bowl of the English-language movement," says Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First in Springfield, Va. "The last time the Supreme Court issued a strong ruling on language was in 1923."
Mr. Boulet says that if the Supreme Court upholds the lower-court decisions it will establish a dangerous precedent that could open the floodgates for discrimination lawsuits whenever local or state governments fail to provide a wide range of services in various foreign languages.
Sandoval's lawyer, J. Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., disagrees. "Every state in the nation accommodates persons who don't speak English," he says. "And every state, as a practical matter, considers English to be the official language."
Mr. Cohen says predictions of widespread lawsuits amount to little more than crying wolf by the opposition.
In the Sandoval case, lawyers for Alabama argue the English-only policy helps promote highway safety by ensuring that licensed drivers have the ability to read traffic signs and communicate with police and rescue officials.
Lawyers for Sandoval counter that, from the 1970s to 1991, Alabama offered its driving tests in 14 languages, including Spanish, Japanese, Farsi, Greek, Arabic, and Vietnamese. Public safety concerns didn't arise, they say, until after the passage of English-only requirements.
Both a federal judge and a US appeals-court panel agreed with Sandoval, ruling that Alabama's policy imposed a discriminatory effect upon thousands of non-English speaking residents of the state. They ruled it was a form of discrimination based on national origin, which is barred by any state receiving federal funds.
Specifically, the US Supreme Court is considering whether the federal appeals court, when ruling in Sandoval's favor, expanded the scope of federal civil rights laws beyond the level Congress intended.
Central to the case is whether federal civil rights laws empower private individuals to file suit against a state agency when facing government regulations like the English-only requirement.
Lawyers for Alabama say federal law does not authorize individuals to sue a state based on claims brought by non-English speakers as a result of English-only regulations.
Instead, they say, the law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, only covers intentional acts of discrimination.
A generally applicable English-only regulation does not amount to intentional discrimination, they argue, since opportunities are open to all to learn English and then pass the test.
"Far from creating a right in favor of individuals who do not speak English, Title VI merely bars the kind of intentional discrimination barred by the [equal protection clause of the] 14th Amendment, which has never included the notion that English-language requirements represent a proxy for discrimination on the basis of national origin," says Jeffrey Sutton in his brief filed on behalf of the Alabama Department of Public Safety.
Mr. Sutton says that the federal law, as written by Congress, authorizes federal agencies rather than private individuals to sue states when they suspect state regulations are creating discriminatory effects.
Lawyers for Sandoval counter that the right of individuals to file such suits, while not stated explicitly in the law, is nonetheless clearly implied.
"The decisions of this court neither compel nor support a requirement that [the law] state explicitly that recipients can be sued by private parties for violations of funding conditions," writes Cohen in his brief on behalf of Sandoval. "Any such requirement would be inconsistent with this court's prior decisions that there is an implied cause of action."
The case is being watched closely by proponents of English-only laws. They are hoping a ruling in Alabama's favor will give new momentum to the promotion and preservation of English as a national language.
Civil rights groups are hopeful that the high court will back Sandoval's reading of the law in a way that will make it easier for various minority groups to win discrimination suits whenever they suffer disproportionately from government regulations.
"In 1963, when President Kennedy submitted Title VI for congressional consideration, he said simple justice requires that the federal government not subsidize any policies that encourage, entrench, or result in discrimination," Cohen says. "That simple principle is what is at stake in this case."
Mr. Boulet of English First views the case differently.
"The real issue here is that the case before the Supreme Court is saying language equals national origin," he says. "That obviously is not true."