5:19 pm, February 9th, 2011
Georgia may have avoided litigation similar to that seen in Alabama a decade ago when the House of Representatives tabled a bill Wednesday that would mandate driver’s license exams be given only in English.
Georgia currently offers the driver’s license test in more than a dozen languages, including Spanish, Korean and Japanese.
Among House Bill 72’s opponents was the American Civil Liberties Union, whose representatives argued requiring an English-only exam would violate Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville, said driving is not a constitutional right but a privilege. Mills also argued that English is the state’s official language and drivers should pass an English-language exam to ensure they can read road signs printed in English.
In 1990, Alabama amended its constitution to make English its official language. Shortly after, lawmakers moved to give the driver’s license test only in English. In the mid-90s, a woman named Martha Sandoval filed a class action suit challenging the Alabama Department of Public Safety’s policy, saying it was discriminatory and violated regulations that prohibited agencies receiving federal transportation funds from using discriminating methods.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama enjoined the policy, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the ruling. However, the Supreme Court decided in April 2001 that there was no private right of action.
“That meant the Supreme Court said individual plaintiffs don’t have standing to challenge [a similar policy],” said Azadeh Shahshahani, national security and immigrants’ rights project director of the ACLU of Georgia. “But that doesn’t mean it would prohibit the Department of Justice from weighing in.
“If this legislation is to pass in Georgia, the ACLU plans to file a civil rights complaint with the Department of Justice,” Shahshahani said as the bill was being debated on the House floor Wednesday afternoon.
Other opponents said they believed passage of Georgia HB 72 would have been bad for international business and that it unfairly targeted legal immigrants. (The bill excluded immigrants on temporary visas, but it placed a 10-year limit on temporary licenses.)
Before tabling the bill, the House adopted an amendment proposed by Rep. B.J. Pak, R-Lilburn, that swapped the English-only exam with an updated sign test including the most frequent English words displayed on digital signs, according to the Associated Press. Mills called for a motion to reconsider, saying the amendment gutted his bill, but the motion was defeated.
Shahshahani said the ACLU of Georgia will continue to monitor the bill because lawmakers “might resurrect it again.”