Court To Hear 'English Only' Dispute

Tuesday, September 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tackling an ``English only'' dispute from Alabama, the Supreme Court set the stage for an important ruling on a federal law that bans discrimination based on national origin.

The justices said Tuesday they will decide whether private citizens can invoke the law, aimed at fighting bias in programs that get federal funding.

At issue is Alabama's invalidated policy of offering written driver's license tests only in English. Lower courts ruled that the policy violates the federal anti-bias law, and ordered the state to offer the tests in foreign languages as well.

Alabama offered its written driver's license test in numerous foreign languages for two decades, until 1991. The state Department of Public Safety changed its policy about a year after Alabama voters added an English-only amendment to the state constitution.

The amendment declared English the state's official language and instructed state officials to ``take all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language ... is preserved and enhanced.''

At least 20 states have measures designating English as their official state language, but many of those appear to be symbolic and do not restrict government use of other languages.

Martha Sandoval, a permanent resident alien from Mexico who lives in Mobile, Ala., sued the state Department of Public Safety in 1996 on behalf of herself and others. Her lawsuit alleged that the English-only policy violated a federal law known as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The law bars discrimination based on, among other things, national origin by any program receiving federal money.

Alabama's Department of Public Safety receives more than $1 million each year from the federal Department of Transportation and Justice Department — for such things as trooper overtime pay and hostage-rescue training.

In Sandoval's lawsuit, a federal trial judge was told that about 13,000 Alabama residents would have difficulty obtaining a state driver's license because of the department's English-only policy.

The judge said the policy would result in a ``disparate impact on the basis of national origin'' in violation of the federal law, and ordered the state to offer tests in other languages. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling last November.

Both lower courts rejected state officials' arguments that the 1964 law does not allow lawsuits by private citizens.

All the federal appeals courts to study that issue reached the same conclusion, but the Supreme Court has never definitively decided whether such a ``private right of action'' exists under Title VI.

The justices in 1998 agreed to resolve that issue but subsequently backed out after learning that the particular dispute had become moot.

In the appeal acted on Monday, lawyers for the Alabama agency urged the justices to use the English-only case to decide the issue they backed away from two years ago.

The case is Alexander v. Sandoval, 99-1908.