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Law School Case Brief

Alexander v. Sandoval - 532 U.S. 275, 121 S. Ct. 1511 (2001)


Like substantive federal law itself, private rights of action to enforce federal law must be created by Congress. The judicial task is to interpret the statute Congress has passed to determine whether it displays an intent to create not just a private right but also a private remedy. Statutory intent on this latter point is determinative. Without it, a cause of action does not exist and courts may not create one, no matter how desirable that might be as a policy matter, or how compatible with the statute. Raising up causes of action where a statute has not created them may be a proper function for common-law courts, but not for federal tribunals.


As a recipient of federal financial assistance, the Alabama Department of Public Safety (Department), of which petitioner Alexander was the Director, was subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Section 601 of that Title prohibited discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in covered programs and activities. Section 602 authorized federal agencies to effectuate § 601 by issuing regulations. The Department of Justice (DOJ), in an exercise of that authority, promulgated a regulation forbidding funding recipients to utilize criteria or administrative methods having the effect of subjecting individuals to discrimination based on the prohibited grounds. Respondent Sandoval brought a federal class action to enjoin the Department's decision to administer state driver's license examinations only in English, arguing that it violated the DOJ regulation because it had the effect of subjecting non-English speakers to discrimination based on their national origin. Agreeing, a district court enjoined the policy and ordered the Department to accommodate non-English speakers. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Both courts rejected petitioners' argument that Title VI did not provide respondents a cause of action to enforce the regulation.


Was the administration of driver's license examinations only in English violative of the discrimination regulations of federal agencies from which Alexander received funding?




The United States Supreme Court held that, even assuming that the regulations were statutorily authorized and resulted in discriminatory impact, there was no private right of action to enforce the regulations. Title VI prohibited only intentional discrimination, and the remedies available for violations of Title VI could not be extended by regulation to remedy disparate impact discrimination that did not violate the implementing statute. Further, the express language permitting the implementing regulations included no provision for implementing private enforcement rights, especially in view of the elaborate statutory remedial scheme for termination of funding for regulatory violations.

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