Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing Texas to reject designs for a license plate bearing a Confederate flag could impact Maryland and Virginia, both of which have been under orders from lower courts to permit such images on their tags.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will not force states to change their policies on specialty license plates, but it allows them to reinstate prior restrictions that were previously overturned.
“If the department of motor vehicles or the governor decided to revoke the Confederate-flag specialty plates, they would be authorized to do that, but the state would have to act,” said Maryland Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County), who teaches constitutional law at American University.
Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration and the office of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Thursday that they’re reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision to determine how it impacts state policy and what steps they should take.
Raskin said he plans to explore legislation to ban the use of Confederate insignia if the administration does not act on its own.
Any change in Virginia would have to come from the state legislature, said Brian Coy, spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). “Virginia’s statute says the General Assembly authorizes license plates, and it would be up to the General Assembly to deauthorize the plates,” he said.
Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles said it is reviewing the Supreme Court decision and will defer to the legislature for direction.
Raskin said Thursday’s ruling also opens the door for states to revoke Confederate plates that they’ve issued in the past, since the owners would no longer have a constitutional right to the tags.
“Maybe they could ask for a refund if they paid for those plates, but the state could certainly revoke the permission to drive with them,” Raskin said.
Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration began allowing speciality plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1996, but the agency recalled the items after African American leaders criticized the move.
Sons of Confederate Veterans sued over the matter and won in a 1997 U.S. District Court decision that said the state violated the group’s First Amendment rights by barring certain viewpoints from the tags, a rule that had not existed in the past.
Maryland has issued 470 Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates since 1996, but only 178 are still active, according to the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration.
Virginia’s legislature passed a bill in 1999 authorizing Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates but prohibiting logos and emblems on them. A U.S. district court ruled in 2001 that the restriction violated the organization’s First Amendment rights.
The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles challenged the decision, but a federal appeals court ruled that the state’s refusal to allow the Confederate flag amounted to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.
As a result of the decision, Virginia started issuing plates featuring Sons of Confederate Veterans images in 2002. The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles said 1,602 of the tags were active as of February.
The majority in the Supreme Court ruling held that the design proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans would not simply reflect the views of the motorists who purchase it, but would instead represent government speech.
Former Maryland attorney general Doug Gansler said the ruling “recognizes that state governments have speech rights also.” He added that the issue was “much more murky before.”
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.