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Supreme Court Watch

April 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, the two Supreme Court decisions. The court today ruled in a discrimination case from Alabama, and in a Texas Fourth Amendment case regarding unreasonable seizures. The justices split 5-4 in both. We get more on these rulings from Marcia Coyle, Supreme Court correspondent and Washington Bureau Chief for the “National Law Journal.” NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg of the “Chicago Tribune” is off. Welcome, Marcia Coyle.

MARCIA COYLE: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s start with the Alabama case. This English-only debate — it seems to me that there’s a small question here and a big question. What was the small point of law that the court was ruling on today?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the Court was looking at whether Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 contained an implied right of action. That means, could private individuals sue their states for policies that had a discriminatory impact? Title 6 bars discrimination by any recipient of federal funds. Alabama is a recipient of federal funds. Alabama, prior to 1990, issued drivers licenses after people took tests, and they could take the test in up to 14 different languages. But in 1990, Alabama amended its constitution to require English as the official language. The state Transportation Department then decided that the driver’s test had to be given in English only.

GWEN IFILL: So this was an individual who is a Mexican immigrant who said I should be able to take this in Spanish and the court said today, the court said this was not something that the state had to do.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right. Martha Sandoval was the Mexican immigrant who wanted to take the licensing test in Spanish along with several others. And she sued in federal court — a class action — using Title 6 saying that this policy of the state had a discriminatory impact on her and was prohibited. But the Court said that it could find no language in the text of Title 6 that would give private individuals that right to sue.

GWEN IFILL: If the Court… In the Court’s ruling today, did they speak to the whole notion about whether states can mandate English-only requirements?

MARCIA COYLE: No, they didn’t. This really was not a decision on the legality or the constitutionality of English- only policies. This just had to do with whether you or I can bring a private suit to enforce title 6. I should point out that Title 6 also bars intentional discrimination by agencies– government, private entities– that receive federal funds. And you still do… Individuals still do have a right to enforce that bar in court.

GWEN IFILL: But as long as it’s unintentional….

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right. That’s the key thing because intentional discrimination is very hard to prove today. You have to show motive by the person or the entity that’s discriminating. But to show that some policy or program has a discriminatory impact is a little easier to do.

GWEN IFILL: Justice Stevens in his dissent wrote a very toughly worded dissent. He said that today’s decision was hostile to decades of settled expectations. What did he mean by that?

MARCIA COYLE: He felt that this question actually had been answered already by the Court; and he also pointed out that all of the federal appellate courts that had faced the question had found that, yes, there was an implied right to bring these suits. So, yes, he felt that the Court had elevated above all those prior decisions a desire to keep these cases out of court, not to go the extra mile and look at Congress’s intent when the language of the statute is silent.

GWEN IFILL: Now, what is the practical effect of this? Does this affect law standing in the other states? Does it affect what happens with this English-only case in Alabama?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the practical impact is that the avenue for enforcing Title 6 ban against discrimination has been shut down. In Alabama itself, the state actually changed its policy back to the original testing in multiple languages. It changed its policy during the course of this particular suit. But the reason the suit went forward was Alabama had always held open the possibility that it might go back to English- only. There still is a way to enforce Title 6’s ban and that’s up to the federal government. The federal government supplies the money. It can try to pressure states into not doing this by the power of the purse. But for individuals it makes it much more difficult.

GWEN IFILL: Second case decided by the court today. A woman is driving her car full of her kids back from soccer practice. She gets pulled over and she gets arrested and handcuffed because she wasn’t wearing her seat belt. Her children weren’t in their seat belts. How does she sue?

MARCIA COYLE: Okay. She went to jail. She was in jail for about an hour. And then she went before a magistrate, paid her bond, later pled no contest to the offense and paid the maximum punishment for that offense under Texas law, $50. A little while later — she didn’t immediately say I’m going to sue — she sued in federal court after a series of events in which the city and sheriff did not respond to her concern about this particular officer. She sued saying that the city and the police department had violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

GWEN IFILL: Why did the Court decide that there was no merit to that case, to that argument?

MARCIA COYLE: The Court looked for guidance in two ways. When you’re trying to decide what the Fourth Amendment says or what it protects, the court said you look first to the history. You look at what the law and the practice was at the time of the founding of our country. And you also look to English common law. When the court looked at that history, it couldn’t find a clear answer. So it fell back on what is normally the touchstone for Fourth Amendment violation: Was this arrest reasonable? And that makes it engage in a very, sometimes, very difficult balancing test. It has to look at the nature of the intrusion on your right to be free of these searches and seizures as well as what governmental interest is being served here.

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry. I just want to move on a little bit because this is one of those 5-4 decisions — which is interesting — except in this case Justice Souter was with the five and Justice O’Connor wrote the dissent. What was her argument?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice O’Connor felt, unlike Justice Souter, that there was nothing reasonable about this arrest. She said an arrest even for a minor offense has seriously ramifications. Gail Atwater experienced some of those ramifications. She felt that the state’s, the government’s interest here was best served with the issuance of a citation. And she would have announced a rule that said you cannot arrest anyone for a minor criminal offense that has no jail time associated with it unless the police officer can articulate specific facts that raise it to the level of an arrest.

GWEN IFILL: Are there other Fourth Amendment cases like this before the Court this session?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, there are. In fact there’s a total of seven Fourth Amendment cases this term. The Justices usually have, say, two to three. So this is an unusual number.

GWEN IFILL: How unusual is a case like this that something so small can become so big?

MARCIA COYLE: It’s not unusual at all. It’s surprising that this particular question hadn’t been answered after so many years of Fourth Amendment cases, but it’s not unusual at all. I think that the court is seeing more and more Fourth Amendment cases partly because of the war on drugs. Even though that war has disappeared from our headlines, it’s still very much a war for police on the streets. And as they try to stop the flow of drugs, they’re drawn more and more into searching cars, homes and that raises questions under the Fourth Amendment.

GWEN IFILL: About what’s reasonable and what’s unreasonable.


GWEN IFILL: Marcia Coyle, thanks very much for joining us.

MARCIA COYLE: Thank you.