OKLAHOMA CITY — The U.S. Supreme Court this week declined to hear part of an
Oklahoma case challenging the state's specialty "Choose Life" license plates,
but attorneys for the plaintiffs vowed to continue their lawsuit.
Approved by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2002, the yellow plates picturing a
smiley-faced boy and girl cost $37. For each license plate sold, $20 goes to a
fund administered by the Department of Human Services for nonprofit
organizations for counseling and other needs of pregnant women. However,
organizations that provide information on abortions are denied access to the
About 450 "Choose Life" license plates have been sold each of the last two
years, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Tulsa in 2004 on behalf of several
Oklahoma motorists and the Oklahoma Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice,
Inc. Attorneys with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights and the
law firm Debevoise & Plimpton are representing the plaintiffs.
The abortion-rights proponents are arguing two points in their case. First,
that it's unfair that lawmakers have allowed a "Choose Life" plate while those
seeking a license plate with a message on abortion rights would be required to
gather 500 prepaid applications.
Second, they contend that groups offering a full range of pregnancy options,
including abortion, should be able to access funds generated from the sale of
the license plates.
On Jan. 7, the Supreme Court declined in Hill v. Kemp to hear arguments on the first part of
the case, allowing to stand an earlier ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals. The appeals court ruled that the fees paid for the specialty plates are
state taxes and that any challenge must be pursued in state court.
The second argument regarding access to the funds has been sent back to the
U.S. District Court in Tulsa.
"We had hoped that the plaintiffs would be given an opportunity to pursue
their freedom-of-speech claims in federal court," said Janet Crepps, senior
staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "Pro-choice Oklahoma
drivers are being denied the opportunity to express their point of view, while
anti-choice drivers are granted the right to spread propaganda that not only
supports their political opinions, but is explicitly sanctioned by the state
The defendants in the case include officials with the Oklahoma Tax
Commission, which issues specialty license plates, Department of Human Services
Director Howard Hendrick and Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry.
Charlie Price, a spokesman for Attorney General Drew Edmondson's office, said
on Jan. 8 that “the state is pleased the court ruled in our favor, so we'll see
what the next step is on their part."
Price also noted the state law has been changed so that any group can obtain
a specialty license plate with 500 prepaid applicants.
"Now, pretty much any group can get a specialty tag as long as it's not
offensive or obscene, so that renders, in our estimation, the whole issue moot,"
Officials with the Center for Reproductive Rights said they planned to
continue their challenge.
"Together with Debevoise, we will explore all available options to ensure
that the important federal claims raised by these Oklahoma residents will be
fully heard," the group said.