Judge encourages settlement for lawsuit alleging Hawaii discriminates against immigrants

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HONOLULU — A federal judge said Tuesday that she's inclined to order a settlement conference for both sides of a lawsuit claiming Hawaii discriminates against those with limited English skills.

A lawsuit filed in 2013 by Faith Action for Community Equity was based on Hawaii's English-only policy for obtaining driver's licenses. The organization argues that not allowing licensing tests in languages other than English is discriminatory.

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway told lawyers representing the state and the plaintiffs that it's looking more like a case that should settle, partly because the state last year began offering tests in various languages. She encouraged them to find another way other than a jury trial to resolve their differences because it's "highly likely" that she'll order them to participate in a settlement conference.

Mollway is also not inclined to dismiss the case or grant plaintiffs' request for judgment in their favor, at this time. She outlined her reasoning in court documents filed late Monday.

There's a question whether the state intentionally discriminated against immigrants when it stopped providing translated exams in 2008 after one question was added to the test, she said. On the other hand, Mollway said, the state knew that in 2007 it administered more than 4,000 exams in various languages and translating the one question would have involved minimal time and resources.

"A jury could reasonably infer from the delay between 2008, when the translated exams were no longer used, to the translation of the exams in 2014 that the state intended to discriminate against various national origins, as it was foreseeable that there would be a disparate impact on non-U.S. citizens," Mollway wrote.

It's a case that has the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is concerned that the state took more than five years to offer translated exams. The state's "failure to provide any translated driver's license examinations between 2008 and 2014 constitutes a failure to timely provide meaningful language services," attorneys for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division said in court documents submitted in the case last month.

The state Transportation Department now offers the test in 12 other languages: Tagalog, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Samoan, Tongan, Ilocano, Spanish, Chuukese, Marshallese and Hawaiian.

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Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa .

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