High Court Decision Expected to Chill Future Civil Rights Suits
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent reversal of two lower court decisions in a lawsuit challenging a state’s English-only policy is expected to have a chilling effect on other types of civil rights lawsuits, including those aimed at challenging higher education policies that yield a discriminatory effect, experts say.
The high court ruled last month, in Alexander v. Sandoval by a vote of 5-4, to limit the scope of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, asserting that private individuals cannot sue public agencies that receive federal funds over rules they consider racially or ethnically discriminatory.
“This is definitely going to have an effect on civil rights cases, not just national origin cases,” says Angelo Amador, a national policy analyst with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF).
One higher education case that is expected to be affected by the Sandoval decision is that filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund against the University of California. In that case, the plaintiffs claim the university’s admissions policies have a “disparate impact” on students of color. Efforts to get a statement from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund were unsuccessful, but LDF attorney Theodore Shaw was cited in The Washington Post as saying he and his colleagues would have to reassess their plan of action.
The University of California, meanwhile, remains unmoved. “I don’t think this case will affect the University of California at all because our current standards meet the legal muster under Title VI,” says Christopher Patti, counsel for the UC system. “We don’t plan to change our admissions practices as a result of this decision.”
The case that invoked the Supreme Court decision began when Martha Sandoval, a Mexican immigrant from Alabama, sued the state for not allowing her to take her driver’s exam in Spanish. She claimed that the state’s English-only policy violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The Alabama District Court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Sandoval’s favor, but the state petitioned the Supreme Court for a ruling.
Title VI of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act bars state recipients of federal money from discriminating based on race, color or national origin. It is a given that individuals have the right to sue over alleged state-sponsored, intentional discrimination, the court said. But Sandoval and others do not have the right to sue over rules such as Alabama’s English-only requirement for driver’s tests, the court ruled.
“Neither as originally enacted nor as later amended does Title VI display an intent to create a freestanding private right of action to enforce (such) regulations,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his opinion. “We therefore hold that no such right of action exists.” Scalia was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, William H. Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas. Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter dissented.
The court is “saying that it is not enough to prove discriminatory impact, you have to prove intentional discrimination,” Amador says. “One thing that is very hard to prove are the intentions of an individual because you have to prove what a person is thinking.”
Amador adds that the Sandoval decision is unusual because nine out of the 12 circuit courts had previously upheld an individual’s right to sue government agencies under Title VI. “Usually when they take a case of this magnitude, it is because they want to (underscore) the precedent,” Amador says of the chief justices. “In this case, they went against the precedent.”
— Compiled from staff and wire reports
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