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Choose Life Illinois, Inc. v. White

January 19, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David H. Coar


Before this Court is plaintiffs Choose Life Illinois, Inc. et al's ("Plaintiffs") motion for summary judgment against defendant Jesse White ("White" or "Defendant"), and defendant Jesse White's motion for summary judgment against Plaintiffs. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs' motion is granted, and Defendant's motion is denied..


Choose Life Illinois, Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation, whose purpose is to promote and increase adoption in the state of Illinois. The fifteen individual plaintiffs all reside in Illinois, and are members of Choose Life Illinois. Each individual has committed to purchase one or more sets of the "Choose Life" specialty plates if they were available. Many of the individual plaintiffs have been public advocates of adoption. Many have adopted children of their own or were themselves adopted. Although the words used on the requested plate "Choose Life" are consistent with the goal of promoting adoption, it is not lost on this court that these words are also closely associated with the "Right to Life/Anti-Abortion" political point of view. Under the reasoning expressed in this opinion, this duality of purpose is not material. This court will assume that this broader purpose motivates the Plaintiff's request.

Defendant is the Secretary of State of the State of Illinois ("Secretary"). Among other duties, White has statutory responsibility for issuing vehicle license plates in Illinois and for administering the specialty license plate programs in Illinois.

With certain exceptions, every motor vehicle registered in Illinois must bear a license plate issued by the Secretary's Vehicle Services Department under the oversight and direction of the Defendant. When vehicle owners request license plates, they may choose a standard plate or a more expensive vanity, personalized, or "specialty" plate. Specialty plates, of which there are approximately 60 designs in existence, bear a medley of various special-interest messages. At least 27 of these plates are sponsored by private organizations. Some examples include, "Be an Organ Donor," "I am Pet Friendly," and "D.A.R.E."*fn1 The proceeds from specialty plates typically inure in large part to the benefit of various non-profit interest groups, as well as to the State of Illinois to cover or help defray administrative processing costs.

Illinois law vests in the Secretary the authority to observe, administer, and enforce the provisions of the motor vehicle code, including those governing specialty license plates. The Secretary may amend or rescind rules and regulations as may be necessary in the public interest to carry out the provisions of the code, and is authorized to refuse any application lawfully made to the Secretary if he is "not satisfied of the genuineness, regularity or legality thereof or the truth of any statement contained therein, or for any other reasons, when authorized by law." 625 ILSC 5/2-110; 625 ILSC 5/3-600(a).

In 1988, Illinois began offering specially designed license plates to recipients of the Purple Heart. In 1990, the General Assembly enacted P.A. 84-1207, §1, currently codified at 625 ILCS 5/3-600, which sets forth certain requirements for the issuance of specialty license plates. By its terms, the statute does not require enabling legislation before a new category of specialty license plates may be issued. Under 625 ILCS 5/3-600, the Secretary is barred from issuing a series of specialty plates unless 10,000 applications for plates of that series have been received, except when the Secretary prescribes some other required number of applications. This provision also requires the Secretary to notify all law enforcement official of the design, color and other special features of the plates.

In other provisions of the motor vehicle code, the General Assembly has given specific guidelines as to the substantive content on the plate, including the name of the State, the registration number of the vehicle, the year number for which it was issued, and the phrase "Land of Lincoln." 625 ILCS 5/3-412(b). Illinois law also requires the Secretary "to refuse any license plates bearing a combination of letters or numbers, or both, which creates a potential duplication or, in the opinion of the Secretary, (1) would substantially interfere with plate identification for law enforcement purposes, (2) is misleading, or (3) creates a connotation that is offensive to good taste and decency." 625 ILCS 5/3-405.2.

Defendant has issued a "Fact Sheet" explaining his own policies and practices with respect to the issuance of new categories or types of specialty license plates. Particularly, Defendant requires that the General Assembly must approve specialty plates. Defendant has required that legislation be introduced and approved by both chambers of the General Assembly, and signed into law by the Governor, in order to approve the specialty plates. These requirements for specialty plates are not included in the statute authorizing specialty plates, 625 ILCS 5/3-405.2, and there are no substantive criteria or guidelines for the approval of the specialty license plates by the General Assembly and the Governor.*fn2 Further, pursuant to 625 ILCS 5/3-600, the Secretary has reduced the requisite number of applications for a new plate from the statutory target of 10,000 to 850.

According to the Defendant's Fact Sheet, once the General Assembly has approved the specialty license plate and requests approach 850 (between 750 and 850), the Communications Department works with some representing the special interest group on a design of the plate. The sample plate is submitted to law enforcement for approval. Once 850 requests are actually received, an initial production order is placed. Notification and applications are sent to all those that submitted commitment forms requesting the plate, and plates are issued when the applications and money are received. It is noted on the Secretary's written policy that any promotional materials relating to a specialty license plate "are the sole responsibility of the sponsoring organization." Dannenberger Dep. 24.

During the 2001-2002 legislative session, the Illinois General Assembly enacted, and the Governor signed into law, legislation authorizing specialty license plates to raise money and awareness for social causes, such as education, pet overpopulation, and Pan-Hellenic charities. Choose Life Illinois, through Illinois State Senator Patrick O'Malley and Illinois State Representative Dan Brady, introduced several "Choose Life" specialty license plate bills during the 2001-2002 legislative session. The General Assembly took no action. During the 2003-2004 legislative session, Choose Life again introduced several "Choose Life" specialty license plate bills. The General Assembly again took no action, and the specialty plate was de facto denied.

On June 28, 2004, Plaintiffs filed suit in this court. Plaintiffs allege that, having the requisite number of requests, the state's denial of the "Choose Life" plate constituted viewpoint discrimination, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. Before this court are both ...

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