Court Weighs English-Only Law

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If Martha Sandoval cannot sue for the opportunity to take her Alabama driver's exam in Spanish, then people everywhere cannot take full advantage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, civil liberties groups say.

Though Sandoval already won her challenge to Alabama's "English-only" rule for driver's license tests, the Supreme Court now will now decide if she had the right to take the state to court.

"The right to sue has been an essential component to make sure these civil rights laws have meaning," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, one of several generally liberal groups that filed legal briefs supporting Sandoval.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by summer whether individuals such as Sandoval can sue under the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that bars state recipients of federal money from discriminating based on race, color or national origin.

Theoretically, the case would establish ground rules for private challenges to the way states administer all manner of federal anti-prejudice laws.

The justices heard an hour of arcane arguments about the case Tuesday that at times seemed to have little to do with Sandoval and Alabama's English-only law.

Sandoval, originally from Mexico, sued the state over its decision to offer driver's exams only in English. Although the Mobile housecleaner could understand some English, such as the road signs "stop" and "Right turn," the test required roughly a 10th-grade understanding of the language.

Prior to 1990 passage by the Alabama Legislature of a law designating English as the state's official language, the state Department of Public Safety offered the tests in several languages.

Sandoval won a federal class-action suit that overturned the English-language requirement for driver's exams and asserted her right to sue under the theory that when spending federal money, states must abide by federal rules.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court. The state has asked the justices to settle only the lawsuit question and not whether Alabama was right in its original decision to require English for driver's tests.

Alabama, one of 24 states that have passed laws designating English as the official state language, casts the fight with Sandoval as a states' rights issue. A long list of conservative legal groups has sided with the state, as has the National Association of Manufacturers and others who fear the court might overturn rules mandating use of English in many workplaces.

Sandoval had no right to sue, because Congress did not specifically give her one as it wrote the 1964 Civil Rights Act, lawyer Jeffrey Sutton argued for the state Tuesday.

"When you alter the federal-state balance, Congress has to be unmistakable in what it is doing," Sutton argued. "In this case it is anything but unmistakable."

Alabama agres that the "national origin" part of the 1964 law bars intentional discrimination. But the state claims that the driver's exam rules did not discriminate intentionally and had nothing to do with the several million dollars of federal aid that the Alabama Department of Public Safety receives each year.

Lawyers for Sandoval and the Clinton administration countered that Sandoval's right to sue is implicit, and denying her that right would fly in the face of decades of case law.

Solicitor General Seth Waxman, making what is likely one of his last appearances as the Clinton administration's Supreme Court lawyer, asked the justices to recall "the legal and social context that existed in 1964," including organized state resistance to federal civil rights mandates.

Given that climate, Congress could not have intended that states be insulated from citizen lawsuits, Waxman said.

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

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