Language Access Advocacy after Sandoval: A Case Study of Administrative Enforcement outside the Shadow of Judicial Review


Many individuals with limited English proficiency (“LEP”) face language barriers that make it difficult for them to access federally funded services for which they are eligible, including public housing, welfare benefits, and health care. In response to this concern, the federal government issued regulations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that require any programs receiving federal funding to provide oral interpretation and written translation for LEP individuals. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v. Sandoval that individuals have no private right of action to enforce these language access regulations in court. Instead, lawyers for LEP individuals have been forced to rely on filing administrative complaints with federal agencies rather than using litigation to vindicate their clients’ rights under Title VI. This Article examines language access advocacy in the decade since Sandoval as a case study of how effectively federal civil rights laws can be enforced in the absence of judicial review. As this Article finds, the administrative enforcement process provides incentives for all parties to reach a negotiated solution. In a setting that is often less adversarial than litigation, advocates and federal funding recipients can collaborate on long-term, comprehensive plans to improve services for the LEP community. At the same time, the administrative enforcement process fails to redress the harms to individual LEP clients who are denied access to services. The federal government uses a form of cost-benefit analysis to respond to administrative complaints, which supports efficient systemic reforms but denies relief to individual clients. The Article concludes by offering recommendations for how advocates can work within the administrative enforcement process for as long as Sandoval remains the law and judicial review of Title VI language access claims is foreclosed. Advocates should make the cost-benefit case for language access reforms by gathering additional data to quantify the benefits and to minimize the costs. Advocates should also encourage the federal government to provide more specific guidance to funding recipients about language access obligations. Finally, advocates should seek other avenues for protecting the rights of individual LEP clients, since the administrative enforcement process does not provide individual remedies.

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