HONOLULU - The U.S. Department of Justice is supporting a lawsuit alleging that Hawaii discriminates against those who struggle with English by making it too difficult to obtain a driver's license.
Allegations in the lawsuit are sufficient to proceed with a discrimination claim, and the court should deny the state's motion to dismiss the case, the Justice Department said in court documents filed Thursday.
The federal government has a "critical interest" in ensuring that the Hawaii Department of Transportation provides those with limited English proficiency a "meaningful opportunity" to take the driver's license test, the filing said.
The lawsuit filed last year by Faith Action for Community Equity is based on Hawaii offering the exam only in English. However, the Transportation Department last week began offering the test in 12 other languages: Tagalog, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Samoan, Tongan, Ilocano, Spanish, Chuukese, Marshallese and Hawaiian.
Plaintiffs' attorneys say that's not enough for the lawsuit to go away because other issues remain, including road testing issues and a lack of translations for educational materials such as the Hawaii driver's manual.
A report by the group behind the lawsuit said Hawaii was one of only five states that offered the driver's license test only in English.
"It's unusual to have an English-only policy," said Gavin Thornton, deputy director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. "For Hawaii, it really doesn't make any sense at all given the diversity of our population. We have one of the most diverse populations in the nation."
He noted that Kentucky offers 22 different translations, while Hawaii has a much larger immigrant population.
Transportation Department spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter said more than 100 people already have taken the test in languages other than English. The state attorney general's office didn't immediately comment.
The Department of Justice filing acknowledges the state's Feb. 14 news release announcing that translated exams would be available this month.
"Issuing a press release is not sufficient evidence that the translated exams are actually being provided or that translations will not cease again thus plaintiffs maintain a claim for release," the Justice Department filing said.
The lawsuit claims that challenges for those with limited English skills in obtaining a driver's license hinder access to needs such as employment, education and health care.
It cites as an example plaintiff Tochiro Kochiro Kovac, a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia who moved from Chuuk to Maui in 2008. Kovac "commutes to and from work using several buses for a total of five hours a day, approximately four hours more than he would if he were able to drive," the DOJ said.
The state's "refusal to provide interpreter services for driver's license exams discriminates against non-English-speaking people," Claire Wong Black, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys said Friday. "We are pleased to have the DOJ's support."