ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

California court rules against special plates

By Denny Walsh
Sacramento Bee

A Sacramento federal judge has permanently barred California from issuing new vehicle license plates that promote the interests of private, nonprofit organizations.

The section of state law granting the Legislature "unfettered discretion" as to which organizations will benefit from special-interest bills authorizing plates is unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. ruled.

"No standard governs the decision who may speak," Burrell wrote in an order issued Friday. "The First Amendment does not allow the government to use a standardless forum to select private speakers, because the government may use such a forum to present views it finds acceptable while denying access to those wishing to express less favored or more controversial views."

Burrell took the rare step of directing that his 28-page order be published, which means it will appear in case-law books and carry some persuasive value to other courts.

"No decision has yet been made on how to respond to this," Tom Dresslar, spokesman for state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, said Tuesday.

The permanent injunction was sought by Women's Resource Network, a California nonprofit organization that urges adoption over abortion. It sued in April, after the Legislature refused to pass a law allowing the creation of a plate displaying the message "Choose Life."

The organization's attorney, Michael Millen, said Tuesday he and his client are happy with the result.

"We believe it's a complete victory," he said. "The judge said the Legislature can't pick and choose who speaks. It's a great win for everybody who cares about freedom of speech.

"From this day forward, if there's going to be a process for special-interest license plates, the Women's Resource Network gets a seat at the table, just like any other nonprofit."

A bill - AB 477 - that takes approval power away from the Legislature and "sets up a neutral-standards process within the Department of Motor Vehicles" has passed the Assembly and is pending before the Senate, Millen said.

He said several special-interest license bills pending in the Legislature were voided by Burrell's ruling. They include plates commemorating the late civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and farm worker champion Cesar Chavez, Millen said. They also include, among others, plates promoting animal welfare, AIDS education and the Amber Alert system on missing children, he said.

Of the five private, nonprofit plates that fit the narrow category defined in Burrell's order and were previously approved by the Legislature, only a "Yosemite" license plate has been issued by DMV to drivers. The other four applicants each failed to come up with the required minimum 7,500 motorists who would commit to purchasing the plates.

Under Burrell's ruling, the DMV is able to continue issuing the "Yosemite" plates.

It is one of the state's most popular, with 84,000 sold and 41,000 currently registered. The plate costs $50 initially and $40 a year to renew, generating sales of approximately $2.2 million a year.

Of that, the DMV takes $200,000 for administrative expenses and slightly more than $1 million to help fund plates bearing a message promoting protection of the environment. The Yosemite fund receives nearly $1 million that goes for park upkeep.