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Court weighs English-only driver's exams suit

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit that seeks to stop the state from giving its driver's test in multiple languages and return to the use of English only.

The justices did not indicate when they would rule on the spirited arguments that covered everything from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent comments on Spanish to Gov. Bob Riley's industrial recruiting trip to France.

Shannon Goessling, executive director of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, argued that a constitutional amendment making English the "official language" of the Alabama requires the use of English only.

"This should be a straightforward legal interpretation," Goessling told the justices.

But Keith Miller, the state's chief deputy attorney general, argued that the constitutional amendment on an official language does not restrict the state strictly to English.

"It does not say English will be the only language," he said.

The state Department of Public Safety currently offers the driver's exam in Arabic, English, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese and American sign language, department spokeswoman Dorris Teague said Wednesday.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation is representing five citizens who are challenging that. Montgomery Circuit Judge William Shashy ruled against them, without taking the case to trial, and they appealed to the state Supreme Court.

They cite a 1990 constitutional amendment, approved overwhelmingly by Alabama voters, that says: "English is the official language of the state of Alabama."

The constitutional amendment says 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."

After the constitutional amendment was enacted, the Department of Public Safety, upon the advice of then-Attorney General Jimmy Evans, went from giving the driver's exam in 14 languages to just one in 1991.

Then in 1998, after being sued by a Spanish-speaking resident, the department returned to having the exam in multiple languages.

Goessling argued that English was "diminished and ignored by the change in policy."

Miller said having multiple languages allows immigrants who don't speak English to get driver 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 international companies?

"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.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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