Texas’s attorney general wants the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on a five-year fight over specialty Confederate flag license plates.
The plates were sponsored five years ago last month by the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nonprofit group that describes itself as “neither political nor sectional” and “strives to honor and keep alive the memory of the Confederacy and the principles for which Confederates fought.” Supporters of such groups say they are simply celebrating those who fought for state’s rights, while critics say doing so ignores the involvement of those states in slavery.
The specialty plates were denied twice by the state. A Texas Department of Transportation panel voted down the specialty plates when the group first applied for them in August 2009, but the group re-applied when the program was turned over to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. A board there deadlocked on an initial vote and at a second meeting heard from a number of residents, most of them opposed to the application. The board then unanimously voted against granting the specialty license plate, spurring the group to sue on constitutional grounds.
This July, a divided panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit Court upheld the right of the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to sponsor the specialty plate. In that ruling, the court found that “the tortured procedural history that eventually led to the denial of Texas SCV’s plate demonstrates that the subjective standard of offensiveness led to viewpoint discrimination.”
But, in an Aug. 7 filing, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office asked the Supreme Court to take up the issue, arguing that the 5th Circuit ruling needed the high court’s clarification. Sons of Confederate Veterans has until October to respond, the Dallas Morning reports.
In the filing, the attorney general’s office offers four arguments for taking on the case. First, they wrote, there is a circuit-court split on whether specialty licenses qualify as government speech or not. Second, the circuit courts are divided on whether denying a specialty plate counts as “viewpoint discrimination” when it hasn’t allowed a plate displaying the opposite view. Third, the 5th Circuit’s decision “will have untenable consequences” and “leads to absurdities.” Fourth, the case would be a perfect vehicle for the court to resolve both the government-speech and viewpoint-discrimination questions.
At least nine other states offer Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates, as pictured at the bottom of this post: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. A portion of plate proceeds often go to the sponsoring organization. In Georgia, for example, the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans gets $10 of the fee to get or renew a specialty license.
Lawmakers in California, on the other hand, passed a blanket ban last month on the sale of any goods bearing the Confederate flag. In a statement, Assemblymember Isadore Hall (D) said the legislation “respects Constitutional protections by restricting government speech, not individual speech and will send a strong message that California and its taxpayers will not be in the business of promoting racism, exclusion, oppression or violence towards others.”