ENGLISH-ONLY LAWS in Alabama. Sound Transit trains in the Rainier Valley. Legally they've ended up in the same camp and last week they both got good news.
In a blow to civil rights activists, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled—with its now-customary 5-4 conservative majority—that Alabama's English-only law can't be challenged by private citizens and advocacy groups under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. With this decision the court took away one of the main tools that civil rights groups and environmental justice agitators have used to challenge seemingly discriminatory government actions, such as, for example, locating garbage dumps in poor, minority areas.
In Seattle, Title VI is at the center of a lawsuit filed by the group Save Our Valley against Sound Transit. Last fall, U.S. Judge Barbara Rothstein noted that the outcome of the Supreme Court case, known as Alexander v. Sandoval, "will, to a large extent, determine the legal parameters" of the SOV suit. SOV, which represents a number of property owners and others in Southeast Seattle, has challenged Sound Transit's decision to run light-rail trains at ground level through the Rainier Valley—a poor and largely minority area—while putting them in tunnels most everywhere else. Other Rainier Valley residents favor the street-level alignment as more convenient for riders and beneficial for the area's redevelopment.
The Supreme Court's ruling likely means that SOV will have to show deliberate, intentional discrimination on the part of Sound Transit rather than simply discriminatory effects. "We think we've got a pretty good shot at proving that," says George Curtis of Save Our Valley, though he acknowledges that last week's decision "will make things more difficult for us."
Sound Transit's attorney Desmond Brown argues that, far from being discriminated against, the Rainier Valley "is being substantially benefited by the project." He notes that Save Our Valley still has some other claims in its lawsuit so "we'll continue to prepare for trial." A bench trial in the SOV suit is scheduled to begin June 30.
Local civil rights specialist and UW law school professor Eric Schnapper, who argued Alexander v. Sandoval before the Supreme Court last January, notes that while "there aren't thousands of cases" out there employing a Title VI argument, "they tend to be really important cases." He recalls, for example, a case in Los Angeles in which the city proposed to raise fares for buses, which served a largely minority clientele, in order to build a light-rail system that would mostly serve the white parts of town. "It was a billion-dollar tax on blacks and Hispanics," he says. The case was ultimately settled. Says Schnapper of last week's ruling: "This ain't good. But whether it's a disaster or not only time will tell."
For Sound Transit, on the other hand, the ruling is a rare light in a darkening tunnel.
Mark D. Fefer