License Bill Could Elicit Suit

David Ryfe, Tennessean (Nashville), April 23, 2006

Advocates of a bill that would force people to take the Tennessee state driver’s license exam in English argue that it would enhance public safety, but a lack of hard evidence about the risks posed by non-English speaking motorists could put the state in legal hot water if the bill becomes law, some experts said.

Tennessee keeps no data to support or dispel the safety claim, state officials said. Thus, no one knows if preventing people with a limited command of English from driving would make Tennessee’s roads safer.

The absence of statistics could make the state vulnerable to a lawsuit based upon Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, says Janice Snow Rodriguez, executive director of the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute.

“It comes down to discrimination,” she said. “People who are in every other way within their right to get a driver’s license, are prevented from doing so.”

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Alabama was hit with just this kind of lawsuit after it passed an English-only law in 1990. In that suit, Martha Sandoval, a legal Mexican immigrant, claimed that her civil rights were being violated. She won in a lower federal court.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Sandoval, arguing that private individuals did not have a right to sue unless they had been intentionally discriminated against.

Despite winning in the Supreme Court, Alabama continues to give its driver’s license exam in a dozen languages. Predictably enough, this policy sparked yet another lawsuit, this one from people claiming that providing foreign language exams violates state law. That case was dismissed by a state judge earlier this week.

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