Editor’s note: On Oct. 5, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
CHICAGO — A federal appeals court ruled late last week that the Illinois
secretary of state’s office does not have to issue specialty license plates
bearing the slogan “Choose Life” favored by anti-abortion forces.
State officials are within their rights in trying to keep either viewpoint on
the emotional issue of abortion off of Illinois license plates, the 7th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Nov. 7 in Choose
Life Illinois v. White.
“It is undisputed that Illinois has excluded the entire subject of abortion
from its specialty plate program,” a three-judge panel of the court said.
“It has authorized neither a pro-life plate nor a pro-choice plate,” the
panel said. “It has done so on the reasonable rationale that messages on
specialty license plates give the appearance of having the government’s
endorsement, and Illinois does not wish to be perceived as endorsing any
position on abortion.”
It said the state’s position on the issue represented a restriction on
content, not an unconstitutional restriction on free-speech viewpoint, since it
bars both viewpoints on one of the biggest hot-button issues in the legal
The Nov. 7 ruling — based on an appeal by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse
White — reversed a January 2007 ruling by U.S. District Judge David H. Coar.
Coar had ordered the secretary of state’s office to start producing the
plates as long as proponents, led by Choose Life Illinois Inc., could show that
enough people were interested and the design met the state’s specifications for
specialty plates. But Coar stayed his order pending appeal by White.
Among other things, Coar said the slogan “Choose Life” could indicate that
proponents favored adoption and rejected the notion that it was a thinly
disguised anti-abortion slogan. But the 7th Circuit panel addressed the abortion
Attorneys for Choose Life Illinois and the secretary of state’s office did
not return phone calls seeking comment in time for this story.
Proponents of “Choose Life” plates had brought their crusade to federal court
after years of trying unsuccessfully to get state legislators to authorize
The secretary of state’s office issues 60 different specialty plates
dedicated to interests ranging from pet lovers to environmentalists. But White’s
office said all the plates had been authorized by the General Assembly and
signed by the governor.
Coar had ruled that White didn’t need legislative approval to issue the
plate. But since then, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation barring
issuance of specialty plates without its approval and the governor’s signature.
The appeals panel said that settled the question of whether legislative approval