Can states give drivers tests only in English?
US Supreme Court will decide if English-only driving license test is discriminatory.
A dispute over an Alabama English-only law has become an important forum to determine the scope of US civil rights laws.Skip to next paragraph
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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.