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Backers of 'Confederate Heritage' specialty plate win round in court

A refusal over this specialty plate prompted a lawsuit.

Special to the Times

A refusal over this specialty plate prompted a lawsuit.

TALLAHASSEE — The Sons of Confederate Veterans is trumpeting a federal judge's ruling as a major victory in its efforts to get the rebel battle flag on a specialty license plate in Florida.

The group filed a lawsuit in January against the state and the Legislature after lawmakers refused to take action for two years on its application for a "Confederate Heritage" plate.

U.S. District Judge John Antoon II in Orlando dismissed the complaint against the lawmakers, citing legislative immunity from litigation, but refused to drop the case against the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Tuesday's ruling, though largely procedural, forces the state to fight the lawsuit and poses a significant challenge to the constitutionality of the specialty plate program.

The order "is a huge step forward for our case and the ruling will pave the way for the Confederate Heritage plate to become a reality," said Fred O'Neal, the attorney for the group of descendents of Confederate soldiers.

The state motor vehicles department, according to court documents, argued that the issue didn't merit judicial review and the group needed to get legislative support. The group's case "ignores the Legislature's history … and general common sense that the legislative process takes time," department attorney Mike Alderman wrote.

The judge, who was appointed in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, rejected the state's argument. The state is required to respond to the substance of the case by Dec. 15.

A spokesman for the motor vehicles department said the judge's order means the stars and bars are nowhere closer to appearing on a Florida license plate. "This is simply just a step in the legislative process," said Dave Westberry, the spokesman.

Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who was named in the lawsuit, said he is uncertain what the ruling means for the state law on specialty plates. "Where do we draw the line with constitutionality," he said. "I don't know."

For a nonprofit organization to receive a specialty tag, it must pay a $60,000 fee and conduct a survey that shows at least 30,000 Floridians intend to buy a plate. Once the application is approved, the Legislature must pass a bill authorizing the department to issue the tag.

The process is often a political flash point and a state Senate committee is now conducting a review of the speciality tag law.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, with the help of controversial Orlando political operative Doug Guetzloe, won approval but the legislation didn't get a hearing.

The group contends the state's rejection infringes on free speech rights. It is asking the judge to declare the law unconstitutional and seeks an injunction allowing the state to issue the tag.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Backers of 'Confederate Heritage' specialty plate win round in court 12/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 11:16pm]

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