Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Florida Legislature Violates SCV's Rights

Confederate License Plate Battle Goes Back to Court
Blown off by Legislature, heritage group could blow up state's specialty-tag program
Kenric Ward
May 12, 2011

A new civil war is brewing in Florida, now that the Legislature failed to approve a Confederate license plate.

Marking the sesquicentennial start of the "War of Northern Aggression," the Sons of Confederate Veterans are determined to get their "Heritage" tag or take down the state's entire specialty-plate program.

In a March 30 decision, a federal judge ruled that Florida's program -- under which the state Legislature approves the plates -- was unconstitutional because it gives "unfettered discretion to engage in viewpoint discrimination."

The Florida SCV ignited the legal battle when it sued the state after the Legislature failed to approve the Confederate plate.

Since the court ruling, SCV leaders tried to get lawmakers to reconsider, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

"They had a million and one excuses. We got nowhere," said John Adams, first lieutenant commander of the Florida SCV.

Adding to the irony, and fueling Southern angst, state lawmakers did find time to approve a "Hispanic Achievers" plate during the session.

"We still have a Legislature that was discriminatory, and continues to be," Adams fumed.

Heading back to court, the 1,500-member heritage group now asserts that the Legislature created an "unconstitutional forum" and failed to address U.S. District Judge John Antoon's order to remove itself from the plate-approval system.

In his motion, attorney Fred O'Neal, representing the SCV, asked the court to either strike down the statutes in question or re-open the case.

Though the SCV lists only about 1,400 active members, Adams notes that its companion female organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, has roughly 2,000 members. Another 5,000 Floridians are classified as "inactive" members.

SCV members must prove they are related to an ancestor who served during the Civil War. But the Confederate Heritage plate would be available to any Florida motorist who pays the standard $25 annual fee for a specialty tag.

Adams said a required survey of potential purchasers indicated that the plate would begin with an issue of 4,500 tags.

"We won't have the problems the Girl Scouts had," he predicted, noting that the group failed to meet the sales threshold of 1,200 plates over two years.

Sons of Confederate Veterans, based nationally in Columbia, Tenn., currently sponsors the Confederate-inspired tags in nine states: Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Texas and Kentucky are currently considering Confederate plates of their own. Neither Maryland nor Kentucky were in the Confederacy.

"The plates promote a positive image of the Confederate States of America. The Confederate soldier, he takes a beating nowadays. We're trying to divest ourselves of the negative associations," Jay Barringer, the commander of the SCV Maryland Division, told USA Today this week.

Citing Judge Antoon's March 30 ruling, Adams said the Florida Legislature is "running amok" and must be barred from politicizing an administrative process.

"A 2004 state report explained this would happen. The report concluded that the DMV could manage the program in a nonpartisan way, but the Legislature just ignored it. It's pathetic," Adams said.

While the SCV fulfilled all DMV requirements -- including the payment of a $60,000 application fee -- the 2011 Legislature detoured around DMV rules and procedures when it arbitrarily approved the "Hispanic Achievers" plate, O'Neal said.

"The National Hispanic Corporate Achievers Inc., simply sought out a legislator to sponsor enabling legislation authorizing the issuance of their plate by a simple amendment" to state statute, O'Neal wrote in his motion on April 28.

"The nuclear option is to get the whole statute knocked out," Adams said. "Then we'll see what happens to all those FSU plates out there."

No Florida legislator could be reached for comment, but state DMV spokesman David Westberry said the court ruling didn't order the state to issue the Confederate Heritage plates. It's up to the Legislature to decide whether it will rework the statute, he said.

The state has until Thursday to formally respond to SCV's latest court filing.