Public safety at stake – drivers must know language of the road

‘Official English’ amendment enjoys 9-1 support among Alabama voters


MONTGOMERY, AL: Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF) today filed the second lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court challenging Alabama’s current policy of offering driver’s license examinations (DLE) in multiple languages other than English – a direct violation of Amendment 509 of the Alabama Constitution. Along with local legal counsel, Sam Samsil of Birmingham, the plaintiffs are seeking to stop the state from offering driver’s license examinations in multiple languages. The five Alabama plaintiffs include state Sen. Scott Beason (R-17th), Larry Spencer, Allison Slappy, Lisa Payne, and Mary Ambridge.

“Today we filed a new lawsuit on behalf of the people of Alabama, who voted by a 9-1 margin in support of making English the official language of the state,” said Shannon L. Goessling, SLF Executive Director and Chief Legal Counsel. “The Alabama Constitution mandates that state officials must ‘preserve and enhance’ the role of English as the common language of the state, and must not ‘diminish or ignore’ the role of English as the common language of the state. The Alabama driver’s license exam program does not preserve and enhance, and in fact, diminishes and ignores the role of English as the common language of the state.”

Goessling points out that, in direct response to the enactment of Amendment 509 (see attachment) in 1990, the state stopped giving DLEs in languages other than English. When the policy was challenged by the Southern Poverty Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union as a civil rights violation, then-Gov. Don Siegelman re-instituted offering DLEs in multiple languages. When the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the SPLC/ACLU lawsuit in 2001, the state was free to return to its constitutional mandate – DLEs exclusively in English. Of note, then-U.S. Rep. Bob Riley signed onto a friend of the court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case to vigorously defend the state’s policy of offering the DLEs exclusively in English.

In the first lawsuit, filed in 2005, Montgomery Circuit Court Judge William Shashy dismissed the claims, citing questionable public policy issues. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld Shashy by a close 5-4 decision in 2007, with strong dissenting opinions raising important constitutional questions about the state’s driver’s license examination program.

The new lawsuit has a new roster of Alabama plaintiffs and raises new questions about the rationale relied upon by the state for continuing its unconstitutional DLE program. “Under Amendment 509, all residents of Alabama have automatic standing to go to court to challenge what they believe to be a violation of English as the official and common language of the state – that’s how important the terms of the Amendment were to the authors in the legislature and the citizens who voted for it,” Goessling added. “There is no other constitutional provision that has that kind of enforcement power.”

SLF is an Atlanta-based constitutional public interest law firm and policy center founded in 1976 (www.southeasternlegal.org).


Lawsuits Challenging State Driver’s License Exam Program

1990: Alabama voters approve Amendment 509 by a 9-1 margin. Amendment reads: “English is the official language of the state of Alabama. The legislature shall enforce this amendment by appropriate legislation. The legislature and officials of the state of Alabama shall take all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language of the state ofAlabama is preserved and enhanced. The legislature shall make no law which diminishes or ignores the role of English as the common language of the state of Alabama.

Any person who is a resident of or doing business in the state of Alabama shall have standing to sue the state of Alabama to enforce this amendment, and the courts of record of the state of Alabama shall have jurisdiction to hear cases brought to enforce this provision. The legislature may provide reasonable and appropriate limitations on the time and manner of suits brought under this amendment.”

1991: As a direct result of Amendment 509, the Alabama Department of Public Safety ends policy of offering driver’s license examinations (DLE) in multiple languages and offers DLEs exclusively in English.

1996: A group of non-English-speaking Alabama residents, represented by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), sues Alabama in federal district court, alleging that the state’s DLE policy violates the civil rights of non-English-speaking residents.

1998: A federal district court finds that Alabama’s policy of offering DLEs exclusively in English violates the “national origin” discrimination provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Sandoval v. Hagan, 7 F.Supp.2d 1234 (M.D. Ala. 1998).

1999: The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirms the trial court’s decision. Sandoval v. Hagan, 197 F.3d 484 (11th Cir. 1999).

2000: Then-U.S. Rep. Bob Riley, in accord with the clear mandate of Alabama’s voters, joins 14 of his congressional colleagues in filing a friend of the court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Alabama’s right to give DLEs exclusively in English. Then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor argues for the state’s position. Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001).

Riley argues in the U.S. Supreme Court brief the following:

“The equation of language to national origin also has no basis in fact, and would be both over- and under-inclusive. Spanish, for example, is the official language of at least 13 countries, impairing a determination of a speaker’s ancestry. Many Hispanic-Americans do not speak Spanish, and many non-Hispanic-Americans do.

Any such equation of language and national origin would [also] affect “original power” core functions of the States. Choice of language for internal functions has historically been left to the States. Federal intervention on language choice over a vast sweep of State programs will weaken the state’s powers . . . . Absent a clear and explicit abrogation of those State powers, the States should be left to decide – through their own political processes – which language burdens to accept. There is no such clear and explicit abrogation of State power for language choices in this case.” Brief of Amicus Curiae, 2000 WL 1701936 at pp. 9-10.

2001: The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court decisions and found that Title VI did not create a right of private action for individual plaintiffs. Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001). In doing so, the Court “assumed for purposes of deciding the case that regulations promulgated under Section 602 of Title VI may validly proscribe activities that have a disparate impact on racial groups, even though such activities are permissible under Section 601.” 532 U.S. at 286. This ruling cleared the way for the Alabama Governor and Department of Public Safety to reinstitute the DLE policy of “exclusive English.”

2005: Letter from SLF attorneys raising the potential lawsuit is answered by the Governor’s General Counsel, Ken Wallis, indicating the Gov. Riley does not intend to change the DLE policy.

Five (5) Alabama residents are represented by SLF and Alabama attorney D.M. Samsil fromBirmingham in a state constitutional challenge on the DLE issue against Gov. Bob Riley and Director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety W.M. Coppage. The lawsuit is filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

2006: Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge William Shashy dismisses the complaint. SLF appeals the decision to the Alabama Supreme Court.

2007: Shannon Goessling, SLF executive director and chief legal counsel, argues before the Alabama Supreme Court. The high court holds 5-4 against the plaintiffs in a controversial ruling.

2008: SLF and local Alabama counsel file a new lawsuit on behalf of five (5) plaintiffs, including Alabama State Sen. Scott Beason, challenging the state’s program of offering driver’s license exams in multiple languages as a violation of the Alabama Constitution.

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