Appeal likely in license-plate fee suit

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Court of Appeals will likely be asked to consider whether the Hoosier license plates proclaiming "In God We Trust" violate the state constitution regarding the fees not attached for motorists.

Following a ruling released Thursday by Marion Superior Judge Gary Miller, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana plans to appeal on behalf of a Fort Wayne man who sued over the plate a year ago.

At issue in Mark E. Studler v. Indiana BMV, No. 49D05-0704-PL-016603, was the $15 administrative fee that isn't charged for the plate but is charged for those designated as "specialty" plates. From the beginning, the ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk said this suit was about equity and fairness, not about religion.

The suit alleged that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles gave preferential treatment to the 1.6 million motorists wanting the "In God We Trust" plates because they weren't charged the fee that's collected for many other plates. Studler argued there is no difference between this plate and his specialty environmental plate, for which he has to pay a fee.

But Judge Miller wrote the "In God We Trust" plate is a regular plate similar to the state's "standard" license plate and is not a specialty one, therefore not violating the Indiana Constitution.

Judge Miller determined that no possibility exists for donating to any group, and the BMV isn't required to coordinate design or production with any outside organization, as is the case with specialty plates. There is no special designation created by the new plate; it's all about the production costs, he wrote.

"The Indiana Code makes no such distinction," the judge wrote. "The classification created by the legislature has nothing do with expression. It has to do with drawing generally useful categories based on general assumptions about relative administrative burdens."

He added, "Courts are not to second-guess the Indiana General Assembly when it comes to calculations of this sort."

The judge granted the state's motion for summary judgment and denied the plaintiff's in his order dated April 10, but issued this week.

Falk plans to appeal, he told Indiana Lawyer today.

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