WASHINGTON – An anti-abortion group has won its long legal fight to force Arizona to issue "choose life" license plates, and the proposed new plates could be available to the group's members within several months.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday left in place a January ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the Arizona Life Coalition.
The Arizona Department of Transportation said it would "quickly and fully comply" with the courts' direction. The department said it would consider what to do next, "including the potential" for a meeting of the state license plate commission to reconsider the proposal.
"We just need that stamp of approval to come, and it really should," said Peter Gentala, a lawyer for the coalition. "There's a record of six years of stonewalling here."
Under state law, once an application for a special organization plate is approved by the commission, the applicant then must either submit 200 requests for the plate or provide upfront money for the state to design and produce the plate.
State law then gives the Motor Vehicle Division a year to issue the plate, but MVD spokeswoman Cydney DeModica said producing a special organization plate typically only takes several months.
The plate envisioned by supporters would have drawings of the faces of two smiling children in an overall design based on Arizona's regular plate. The "choose life" slogan would appear twice, once in a handwritten style below the drawings of the faces and once in a formal typeface below the plate number.
While the case has been portrayed as being centered on the abortion issue, Gentala said the groups that belong to the coalition also are speaking of adoption and other concerns.
The commission's members did not explain the panel's decision to deny the application, but a spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Napolitano later said the proposed plate involved a "very contentious and divisive issue that is not appropriate for a license plate."
The coalition submitted its application in January 2002 and, after the commission denied the application, sued the state in September 2003.
The 9th Circuit's ruling overturned one in which U.S. District Judge Paul G. Rosenblatt said the coalition failed to show that its constitutional rights for free speech and equal treatment under the law were violated by the commission.
Rosenblatt said the commission acted reasonably while trying "to avoid the appearance (of) political favoritism in an otherwise nonpublic forum and maintained state neutrality on the issue, giving neither side a leg up in this hotly debated public question."
However, the 9th Circuit said the state's system for allowing special plates effectively created a public forum for private speech but the commission violated the coalition's right to free speech by turning down its application.
The Arizona commission was created in 1997 to oversee a program for nonprofit organizations to seek authorization for special plates. The requesting organization must meet certain criteria and agree to cover the costs of developing the special plate, which is sold for an additional fee. The organization gets some of that extra money.
Before largely suspending its operations because of the court case, the commission had approved numerous special plates for organizations.
Special organization plates already authorized include those for the University of Phoenix, the Arizona Historical Society and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Some groups in recent years have bypassed the commission and received authorization for special plates from the Legislature.
Special plates approved by the Legislature this year include those for the Phoenix Suns and Gold Star families. Those plates are available to anybody, not just the members of the sponsoring groups.