Divided court limits civil rights lawsuits

State discrimination must be intentional

April 25, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a major blow to civil rights claims, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that states and programs that receive federal money cannot be sued for actions that have a discriminatory effect on members of a specific group unless the discrimination was intentional.

The court, ruling 5-4, struck down a challenge to an Alabama policy that requires driver's license exams to be given only in English. A Hispanic woman argued that the policy violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.

The woman did not claim that Alabama intentionally discriminated against her. Rather, she contended, the state's policy had the effect of hurting non-English speaking residents because it made it hard for them to obtain a driver's license.

An appeals court upheld her claim and ordered the state to accommodate non-English speakers. But the Supreme Court reversed that decision yesterday. It ruled that Title VI gives people the right to sue only for intentional acts of bias - not simply when an otherwise nondiscriminatory action inadvertently burdens one particular group.

"Neither as originally enacted nor as later amended does Title VI display an intent to create a freestanding private right of action" for such suits, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court. "We therefore hold that no such right of action exists."

The court's decision could significantly weaken the protections of Title VI, which was passed as part of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Plaintiffs often have difficulty proving intentional discrimination. As a result, many have relied on claims that state actions - whether intentionally or not - produced a discriminatory effect, an approach that most courts have recognized as valid under Title VI.

Scalia's opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Justice John Paul Stevens filed a dissent that was joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Stevens took the unusual step of reading portions of his dissent from the bench. He argued that the majority's decision conflicted with previous Supreme Court rulings and with the general understanding among lower courts.

He also argued that the court's ruling undermined the clear intent of Congress to permit lawsuits like the one filed against Alabama.

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