The Ninth Circuit, which is the laughing stock of the federal judiciary because it is overruled so often, did something bizarre yesterday: it issued a Constitutionally correct decision. Not only that, the decision meant that a citizens’ group will be able to engage in free speech that is contrary to the type of speech the 9th Circuit prefers. I’m impressed:
An Arizona anti-abortion group’s right of free speech was violated when the state refused to issue specialty license plates with the message “Choose Life,” a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
Reversing a judge’s decision, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Arizona’s License Plate Commission had approved less-controversial plates for other nonprofit organizations, such as associations of police and firefighters and the Wildlife Conservation Council, before turning down the Arizona Life Coalition.
The commission “clearly denied the application based on the nature of the message,” Judge Richard Tallman said in the 3-0 ruling. He rejected the commission’s argument that it was entitled to control the content of state-issued license plates and said Arizona was attempting to restrict free expression.
Opponents of abortion have been trying for years to get states to let them use license plates as mobile billboards for the “Choose Life” motto. Judges’ reaction has been mixed.
A South Carolina law expressly authorizing the plates was struck down in 2003 by a federal appeals court because the state did not allow similar plates for abortion-rights advocates, but another appeals court upheld a similar Tennessee law in 2006. The Supreme Court has not taken up the issue.
Courts have generally frowned, however, on a state’s singling out abortion-related messages for exclusion from license plates. Monday’s ruling comes five days after a federal judge ordered Missouri to issue “Choose Life” plates, saying state law gave officials too much leeway to reject license-plate messages because of their content.
California has allowed nonprofit groups to ask the Legislature to approve specialty license plates by submitting 7,500 paid applications. The fees, minus state expenses, are used by foundations that promote such causes as coastal protection, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park and the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Backers of a proposed “Choose Life” plate in California have failed several times to win legislative passage, but won a federal court ruling in 2004 that declared the entire program unconstitutional on the ground that it gave lawmakers unlimited authority to decide which messages to accept. The judge in that case allowed previously approved plates to remain, however, and the state has not established a new specialty-plate program.
Monday’s ruling set legal standards for federal courts in nine Western states, including California. It stemmed from a 2003 lawsuit by the Arizona Life Coalition, which had applied the previous year for a license plate that would display the “Choose Life” slogan with a picture of two children’s faces.