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Let GR8 PL8 Ruling Stand

March 13, 2004


Too bad, that is, if you wanted the Legislature to approve a vanity license plate for your car with the image of Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King Jr., or a plate that declares "Choose Life" or support for pediatric AIDS research, the National Guard or the San Francisco football team.

A federal judge in Sacramento has, praise be, put an end to battles in the Legislature over approving new special-interest license plates, an issue that has sharply divided the Senate and Assembly in recent years. Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. ruled unconstitutional late last month a state law that gave lawmakers "unfettered discretion" in picking and choosing which organizations and special interests would get plates and which would not.

The 24-page ruling said the 1st Amendment did not give the Legislature a right to allow views "it finds acceptable while denying access to those wishing to express less-favored or more-controversial views." The suit was brought by the Women's Resource Network, a nonprofit organization that promotes adoption over abortion, after the Legislature -- dominated by pro-choice Democrats -- rejected its request for a special plate declaring "Choose Life."

A federal court in Louisiana earlier issued a similar ruling, striking down a Louisiana law patterned after California's.

The ruling has no effect on regular vanity plates that carry individualized messages such as 4D49ERS or GRTMOM. The ruling also has no effect on existing plates such as the Yosemite National Park series, the most popular.

Lawmakers already were considering AB 477, sponsored by Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murietta), which establishes a "neutral-standards" process within the Department of Motor Vehicles for approving any new special-interest plate. The bill reiterates current law that organizations must receive at least 7,500 fee-paid applications for a new plate within one year before it can be authorized. Though it easily passed the Assembly and is pending in the Senate, there's no reason to think it would stop the culture-war squabbling.

The Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies have expressed concern about the proliferation of special plates, saying they are more difficult to read and identify. The state should leave the ruling alone. California has enough forums for political fights without extending them to dueling auto license plates. Let's cheer for politeness, as in this plate spotted in Massachusetts: XQQSME.

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