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Advocacy Groups Join English-Only Lawsuit Headed To Supreme Court

November 13, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- (AP) -- Three English-language advocacy groups have joined a suit headed to the Supreme Court that could determine if Alabama violated a Hispanic woman's rights by denying her a driver's test in Spanish.

The groups filed the ``friend-of-the-court'' brief Monday, contending Alabama properly denied Martha Sandoval of Mobile an exam in the language she speaks. They said constitutional protections barring discrimination based on national origin don't apply to language.

Alabama Republican Reps. Bob Riley and Spencer Bachus were among those listed as joining in the brief.

Alabamians overwhelmingly approved an English-only amendment in 1990, effectively changing the state's long-standing policy of providing driver's exams in numerous tongues.

But a Montgomery federal judge struck down the Alabama amendment as a violation of federal law, ruling that Sandoval was wrongly forced to take the test in English. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld the ruling, but Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor appealed, contending the case raises a states' rights issue.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments next January and could rule by June.

``You can't change what country your ancestors came from, but you can learn a new language,'' said Barnaby Zall, an attorney representing Pro-English, the English First Foundation, and the Center for American Unity in the brief.

The groups argue the 11th Circuit essentially created a new civil right by upholding the Montgomery court's ruling. Bob Park, chairman of Pro-English, called that action a ``repudiation of democracy and the fundamental right of American citizens to govern themselves.''

But Richard Cohen, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney representing Sandoval, said Alabama is the only state that doesn't offer driver's tests in different languages, even though almost half have passed pro-English amendments.

Cohen said that just as a police department can't impose a height requirement because it would indirectly discriminate against women, a language requirement discriminates based on national origin.

``The ruling in this case is not some sort of assault on the primacy of the English language, nor is it an assault on the safety of our highways,'' Cohen said in an interview from Montgomery, Ala.

Jim Boulet of the English First Foundation predicted the United States could end up with more than 300 official languages. Driver's exams and road signs would be subject to numerous translations, he said.

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who signed the brief, insisted the case does present a threat.

``Our courts have never said that driving on the roads of Alabama or Georgia is a right,'' Barr said. ``It's a privilege extended to you by the state.''

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