Soucek: 'Choose Life' tag ruling overstepped court's bounds
by Anna Oakes
Republican Sen. Dan Soucek of Boone said Tuesday that a judge's recent ruling on a "Choose Life" license plate in North Carolina was "puzzling."
U.S. District Court Judge James C. Fox ruled Dec. 7 that North Carolina's plan to offer a specialty "Choose Life" license plate to drivers without offering an alternative pro-choice plate was unconstitutional and that the state therefore cannot produce or distribute the "Choose Life" plate.
In the court's ruling, Fox concluded that the state's decision to offer a Choose Life license plate in the absence of a pro-choice plate "constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment."
"I think this is an overstepping of the courts into something that's clearly (a legislative issue)," said Soucek. "It sounds like what the judge is saying is that every idea must be expressed by every medium."
During the 2011 legislative session, the N.C. General Assembly passed House Bill 289, which authorized the issuance of a "Choose Life" license plate.
According to House Bill 289, three-fifths of proceeds from "Choose Life" plate fees would be transferred to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship for distribution to nongovernmental, nonprofit agencies that provide pregnancy services limited to counseling and/or meeting the needs of pregnant women.
"Funds received pursuant to this section shall not be distributed to any agency, organization, business or other entity that provides, promotes, counsels or refers for abortion and shall not be distributed to any entity that charges women for services received," the legislation stated.
Soucek, who voted for House Bill 289, said he supports the "Choose Life" license plate.
"I had a lot of different constituents come up to me and say that's what they believed in," he said. "I think a culture of protecting innocent life is important to our society."
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in September 2011 "on behalf of North Carolinians seeking a specialty license plate that supports a woman's right to reproductive freedom," the organization said.
The legislature did not authorize a plate that supported the pro-choice position, rejecting amendments proposing an additional new plate that stated either "Trust Women. Respect Choice" or "Respect Choice," the ACLU said.
Fox granted a preliminary injunction in November 2011 that temporarily blocked production of the "Choose Life" plate.
"This is a great victory for the free speech rights of all North Carolinians, regardless of their point of view on reproductive freedom," said Chris Brook, ACLU-NCLF legal director, in a statement. "The government cannot create an avenue of expression for one side of a contentious political issue while denying an equal opportunity to citizens with the opposite view. We would have made the exact same argument if the situation was reversed."
But Soucek said the judge's decision surprised and puzzled him, noting that North Carolina offers specialty license plates for a number of causes and affiliations, including sports teams. He mused: Would it be unconstitutional to offer a University of Alabama plate but not an Auburn plate?"
"We're not saying that other ideas can't be expressed," he said. "I'm not exactly sure where he's coming from."
"Choose Life" license plates are promoted by an organization called Choose Life America Inc. According to the organization's website, "Choose Life" license plates are available in more than two dozen states across the U.S., including every state in the South except North Carolina and West Virginia.
Soucek said he is traveling to Raleigh soon and would ask about the state's options in potentially appealing the U.S. District Court's decision. If the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear an appeal, its decision could have ramifications for the Fourth Circuit states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.