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Alexander v. Sandoval

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Alexander v. Sandoval

Alexander v. Sandoval
Argued January 16, 2001
Decided April 24, 2001
Full case name James Alexander, Director, Alabama Department of Public Safety, et al., Petitioners v. Martha Sandoval, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated
Citations 532 U.S. 275 (more)
121 S. Ct. 1511; 149 L. Ed. 2d 517; 2001 U.S. LEXIS 3367; 69 U.S.L.W. 4250; 80 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P40,456; 2001 Cal. Daily Op. Service 3194; 2001 Daily Journal DAR 3941; 2001 Colo. J. C.A.R. 2042; 14 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 206
Prior history 7 F. Supp. 2d 1234 (M.D. Ala. 1998), aff'd, 197 F.3d 484 (11th Cir. 1999), cert. granted, 530 U.S. 1305 (2000).
Subsequent history 268 F.3d 1065 (11th Cir. 2001).
There is no private right of action to enforce disparate-impact regulations promulgated under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, O'Connor, Kennedy, Thomas
Dissent Stevens, joined by Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Laws applied
Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI

Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), was a United States Supreme Court decision which held that a regulation enacted under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[1] did not include a private right of action to allow private lawsuits based on evidence of disparate impact.


  • Background 1
  • Opinion of the Court 2
  • Dissent 3
  • History 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


In 1990 Alabama added an amendment to its state constitution which made English Alabama's official language. Thereafter, James Alexander, Director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety, ordered that the Alabama driver's-license test be given only in English.

Plaintiff Martha Sandoval sued Alexander and other defendants in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, claiming that the English-only test policy was discriminatory.

Sandoval sued under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Two sections of Title VI would prove important to her lawsuit. The first is section 601, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of "race, color, or national origin" by programs or agencies that receive federal funding — such as the Alabama Department of Public Safety.[2] The next is section 602, which authorizes federal agencies "to effectuate the provisions of [section 601] ... by issuing rules, regulations or orders of general applicability."[3]

In her lawsuit, Sandoval invoked a regulation that the United States Department of Justice had promulgated under section 602. This regulation prohibited agencies and programs receiving federal funding from taking actions that had a disparate impact on persons of a certain race, color, or nationality.[4] Sandoval sought to enjoin Alabama's policy of giving driver's-license tests in English only. She argued that the policy had a disparate impact on those born outside the United States, because it denied non-English-speakers, who are disproportionately born outside the United States, the opportunity to obtain driver's licenses.[5]

The state defendants, however, argued that the regulation under which Sandoval was suing them did not include what is called an "implied private right of action." An implied private right of action is a cause of action not expressly created by a statute or regulation but one which a court has interpreted the statute or regulation to implicitly create.

The district court agreed with Sandoval that she had a private right of action and agreed that Alabama's policy was discriminatory under Title VI. The court therefore enjoined the policy. The state defendants then appealed to United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Eleventh Circuit first held that the regulation under which Sandoval sued allowed a private litigant to enforce its provisions, and then affirmed the district court's ruling on the merits. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on "only the question [of] whether there [was] a private cause of action to enforce the regulation."[6]

Opinion of the Court

The Court's opinion, written by Justice Scalia, began by describing the assumptions under which the Court would decide the case.

First, "it is clear," the Court said, that section 601 of title VI contained an implied private right of action.[7] On this point, the Court held that Cannon v. University of Chicago was controlling. Cannon held that Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which is identical to Title VI but applies to gender-based discrimination — contained an implied private right of action.[8] Under Cannon, section 601 of Title VI also contained a private right of action.

The Court next noted that "it is beyond dispute," and that "no party disagrees," that section 601 prohibits only intentional discrimination, and does not prohibit activities which have a disparate impact on certain races, colors, or nationalities.[9]

Finally, the Court said it would assume for purposes of deciding the case that regulations promulgated under section 602 of Title VI may validly prohibit actions that have a disparate impact on certain races, colors, or national origins.[10]

The Court then turned to the question that was at issue in the case: whether the disparate-impact regulation that Sandoval invoked created an implied private right of action. The Court rejected the argument — put forward both by Sandoval and by Justice Stevens's dissenting opinion — that because Cannon involved disparate impact, Cannon held that Title IX and by extension Title VI create a private right of action to enjoin policies that create a disparate impact. Both Sandoval and Justice Stevens relied on a footnote in Cannon which stated that the effect of the policies that the Cannon plaintiff challenged was "to exclude women from consideration."[11] The Court responded that Cannon was decided on the assumption that the University of Chicago had engaged in intentional discrimination, and hence the holding of case applied only to intentional discrimination. The Court asserted, "this Court is bound by holdings, not language."[12] Therefore, from the majority's point of view, the holding of Cannon did not include the footnote.

The Court also rejected the argument that Guardians Association v. Civil Service Commission, a case the Court decided in 1983, dictated the outcome of Sandoval. The Court noted that although five Justices in Guardians had agreed that disparate-impact regulations promulgated under Title VI were valid, a majority of the Justices had not decided that those regulations were enforceable by private plaintiffs.[13]

The Court then examined section 602 — the section of Title VI under which the disparate-impact regulation was promulgated — to determine whether it created an implied private right of action. It began by noting that certain "rights-creating" language that was present in section 601, and which Cannon relied on for its holding, was absent from section 602.[14] The Court pointed out that section 602, by specifying that the federal government could cut off funding to a program which violated regulations, expressly provided for "one method of enforcing" those regulations.[15] It concluded that this "express provision of one method" of enforcement "suggests that Congress intended to preclude others," such as a private right of action.[16] It therefore held that Sandoval had no private right of action under the disparate-impact regulation.


In dissent, Justice Stevens explained the Cannon decision as follows:

Justice Stevens's response to the majority's account of the relation between § 601 and § 602 was as follows:


James Alexander is the Director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety who unsuccessfully argued before both courts that Title VI did not provide a cause of action to enforce the regulation. He is the one who ordered that the Alabama driver's-license test be given only in English.[19]
Plaintiff Martha Sandoval is a Mexican immigrant who was unable to obtain a valid Alabama driver's license because she did not speak English well enough to take the test, which offered only in English. On behalf of Martha and others who suffer same discrimination, the Center and two other civil rights organizations sued the Department of Public Safety for discrimination. The Center won at trial in 1998, and caused the state to begin offering its driver's license test in Spanish and seven other languages. Since then, Sandoval and thousands of other non-English-speaking Alabama residents have successfully acquired their driver's licenses. [20]

See also


  1. ^ 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000-d to 2000d-7.
  2. ^ 42 U.S.C. § 2000d.
  3. ^ 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-1.
  4. ^ 28 C.F.R. § 42.104(b)(2) (2000).
  5. ^ See Sandoval v. Hagan, 197 F.3d 484 (11th Cir. 1999).
  6. ^ Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 279 (2001).
  7. ^ Id. at 279.
  8. ^ Id. at 280 ("The reasoning of [Cannon] embraced the existence of a private right to enforce Title VI as well [as Title IX].").
  9. ^ Id.
  10. ^ Id. at 281.
  11. ^ The disputed footnote from Cannon reads in pertinent part: 441 U.S. at 680 n.2.
  12. ^ Sandoval, 532 U.S. at 282.
  13. ^ Id. at 283.
  14. ^ Id. at 288-89.
  15. ^ Id. at 289-90.
  16. ^ Id. at 290.
  17. ^ Id. at 298.
  18. ^ Id. at 315-16.
  19. ^ ALEXANDER v. SANDOVAL. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. retrieved March 2, 2015.
  20. ^ Judgment for the plaintiff (7 F.Supp.2d 1234)

Further reading

  • Soltero, Carlos R. (2006). (2001), title VI, and the court's refusal to consider the validity of English-only laws or rules"Alexander v. Sandoval". Latinos and American Law: Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. pp. 185–194.  

External links

  • Full text opinion from
  • Summary of case from OYEZ
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