The case involves a Mexican immigrant who sued Alabama because it administers drivers' tests in English only. (Road signs in Alabama are, of course, in English only.)
Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act orders that no one "on the ground of race, color or national origin be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity" covered by the law. Title VI authorizes federal agencies to enforce its mandate in federally subsidized programs.
The question before the Supreme Court in the Alabama case, however, was whether an individual had the right to sue under Title VI.
Like nearly all states, Alabama used to administer its written driver's test in a variety of languages. The state did so in 14 languages from the 1970s to 1991, "including Spanish, Korean, Farsi, Cambodian, German, Laotian, Greek, Arabic, French, Japanese, Polish, Thai and Vietnamese," court records said.
But in July 1990, state voters passed Amendment 509 to the state constitution. The amendment made English "the official language of the state of Alabama" and ordered the Legislature and officials to take "all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language of the state of Alabama is preserved and enhanced."
Amendment 509 allows individuals living or doing business in Alabama to file private suits to enforce the use of English.
A score of other states have made English their official language, but very few, if any, appear to have applied that policy in the way Alabama has.
Shortly after the amendment's passage, the Alabama Department of Public Safety adopted a policy of using English-only in the driver's exam.
"Interpreters, translation, dictionaries and other interpretive aids were officially forbidden," according to an appeals court opinion in the case.
Immigrant Martha Sandoval of Mobile, Ala., supported by "public and religious advocates," filed a class action suit against the driver's exam policy in federal court in 1996.
Sandoval, a Mexican who moved to Mobile in 1987 and is a permanent U.S. resident, speaks little English, court records said. She did take an English class at a Baptist church but quit because she worked two jobs.
A federal judge ruled that Sandoval had the right to sue the state under U.S. "civil rights" law and that the state's policy violated the Civil Rights Act. When a federal appeals court affirmed the judge's ruling, state officials asked the Supreme Court for review of whether Congress, in the Civil Rights Act, created a private right to sue state agencies receiving federal grants.
After hearing argument in January, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts Tuesday in a clear split between constructionists and those justices who do not adhere to a law.
Writing for the narrow majority of conservatives and moderate conservatives, Justice Antonin Scalia cited actual language of federal law.
"Neither as originally enacted nor as later amended does Title VI display an intent to create a free-standing private right of action" - the right to sue - "to enforce regulations promulgated under [the relevant provision]," Scalia said. "We therefore hold that no such right of action exists."
Justice John Paul Stevens led the court's four liberals in dissent.
Stevens said the majority was ignoring Supreme Court precedent and in doing so "suggests that today's decision is the unconscious product of the majority's profound distaste for implied causes of action" - again, the right to sue - "rather than an attempt to discern the intent of the Congress that enacted Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Its colorful disclaimer of any interest in 'venturing beyond Congress's intent' … has a hollow ring.' "
(No. 99-1908, Director Alexander vs. Sandoval and all others similarly situated)
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