A lawsuit seeking to force the state to create a special license plate for an organization opposed to abortion should be thrown out because it hasn’t been established that the group has a constitutional right to express its views through such a means, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office says.
Arizona Life Coalition and its chairman, Gary Paisley, filed suit Sept. 4 in U.S. District Court in Phoenix alleging that the group’s right to free speech was violated in August when the state License Plate Commission refused to accept the group’s proposed organization plate. The special plate would bear the slogan “Choose Life.”
The commission was created in 1999 under ARS 28-2401, which allows special license plates to be issued for non-profit organizations that serve the community and are neither “offensive nor discriminatory.” The statute also prohibits the special plates from promoting a product or a specific religion.
Once an organizational plate is approved, the sponsoring group receives $17 of a $25 annual fee charged on top of the usual vehicle license tax and other fees. The remaining $8 goes to the state for administering the program. The commission has approved several organizational plates, including those for a firefighters union, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Wildlife Conservation Council.
The lawsuit alleges that the commission members delayed making a decision on the request for the special plate for more than a year, and then arbitrarily turned down the request because commissioners felt the slogan would be too controversial.
The request for the organizational plate met all the statutory requirements, Arizona Life Coalition asserts.
The lawsuit is seeking unspecified monetary damages from the commission and asks that the court compel the commission to issue the “Choose Life” license plate.
But in the Sept. 23 motion seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, assistant Arizona Attorney General James R. Morrow argued that it has not been clearly established in law that any organization has a constitutional right to promote its cause through special license plates. Because the law is not clearly established, Mr. Morrow stated, the individual commissioners have a “qualified immunity” from claims for monetary damages.
The lawsuit also should be barred because the plaintiffs didn’t first file a claim against the state under ARS 12-821.01(A), which requires that such claims be presented to the state before any lawsuit may be filed, the motion states. —