Alabama: State Supreme Court hears case on English-only driver's test
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Fri Jun 22 12:20:13 UTC 2007
State Supreme Court hears case on English-only driver's test
*By Crystal Bonvillian <cbonvillian at gannett.com>
cbonvillian at gannett.com
English is the official language of Alabama, but does that mean the state's
driving test must be given in English -- and only English? Alabama's highest
court heard arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by an English-only
advocacy group, ProEng-lish, that wants to stop the Department of Public
Safety from administering driver's license tests in languages other than
English. The state now offers the test in a dozen other languages as well as
American sign language. More and more immigrants are taking the exam in a
language other than English. Of the approximately 297,000 driving tests
administered in fiscal 2006, about 3,200 were taken in a foreign language.
In fiscal 2005, the number of tests taken in a foreign language was about
1,100, according to Martha Earnhardt, spokeswoman for DPS.
The advocacy group, represented by the Southeastern Legal Foundation, argues
that the department is violating a state constitutional amendment approved
by voters in 1990 that lists English as the state's official language. The
amendment requires the use of English only, the foundation's Shannon
Goess-ling told the justices.
"This should be a straightforward legal interpretation," she said. The state
argued the amendment doesn't restrict the use of other languages. "It does
not say English will be the only language," said Keith Miller, the state's
chief deputy attorney general. The state stopped giving driving tests in
other languages after the amendment went into effect, Goessling said. That
policy changed in 1998, however, after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed
a federal lawsuit charging that the English-only tests discriminated against
immigrants. The SPLC took its case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,
which ruled Alabama had the right to mandate testing be done in English.
Nonetheless, the state continued allowing the multilingual tests.
Goessling argued that English was "diminished and ignored by the change in
policy."The amendment states the Legislature "shall enforce this amendment
by appropriate legislation," and the Legislature "shall make no law which
diminishes or ignores the role of English as the common language of the
state of Alabama." Miller countered that if the justices look at the phrase
"diminishes or ignores," they also must take into consideration the wording
about enforcement through legislation. No legislation was ever passed
requiring English-only tests, he said.
Miller said having multiple languages allows immigrants who don't speak
English to get driver's licenses so they can get to work, take language
classes and get their children to school -- all things that help them
assimilate faster. Goessling argued that learning English helps immigrants
assimilate faster and she cited California's governor, who spoke German when
he immigrated from Austria. In remarks last week to the National Association
of Hispanic Journalists, Schwarzenegger said, "You've got to turn off the
Spanish television set" and stay away from Spanish-language television,
books and newspapers.
Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb asked Goessling if the constitutional amendment
would have prevented Alabama's governor from using French to greet
industrial executives in his just-completed trip to France. Goessling said
Riley can't "throw common sense out the window," and he has to show respect
when visiting a foreign country. Justice Tom Woodall asked if offering the
driver's exam in English only would hurt Alabama's success in recruiting
"The international language of business is English," Goessling replied. But
Woodall said it is not the language spoken by many of the foreign laborers
now working in Alabama. Goessling said Mexico and Guatemala, where many of
the Spanish-speaking immigrants were born, do not allow American immigrants
in their countries to take the driver's exam in English. The hearing was
watched closely by some outside the courtroom. The head of a summer ESL
(English as a Second Language) program for Koreans adjusting to Montgomery
life thinks the debate over English-only driving exams is not a "paramount"
issue when dealing with immigration.
"I'm not sure it's going to accomplish the goals of the English-only
advocates," said Jeanne Charbonneau, a coordinator in Hyundai's Family
Support Office. "Limiting (immigrants') driving is only going to restrict
their ability to integrate into our society more rapidly." The justices did
not indicate when they would rule on the appeal.
*The Associated Press contributed to this report.*
[Moderator's note: readers may be interested in an article I wrote on this
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