License Plates Put Abortion Controversy in Full View

Times Staff Writer

Doug Norwood chuckled, stroked his salt-and-pepper goatee and, in a Southern drawl that sounded like warm molasses, confessed: Even if all's fair in love, war and politics, it was a dirty trick.

This fall, Arkansas began selling specialty license plates decorated with a crayon-like drawing of two children and the words "Choose Life." It was the latest in a string of coordinated victories for a Florida-based organization, Choose Life Inc., whose Web site says its license plate campaign allows drivers to "speak up for the unborn."

Supporters say the plates are intended to encourage women facing crisis pregnancies to choose adoption over abortion; critics call the plates a subversive message and an inappropriate use of government-sponsored space.

Norwood, a prominent defense attorney here in northwestern Arkansas, wanted to sue the state but feared that he would have trouble proving legal standing -- proving that, in essence, he had been harmed by the law that created the plates. For that, he needed an ally, and in Tamara Brackett, he found one.

Norwood had been Brackett's lawyer for two years. She had been charged with burglary, though he said she was peripherally involved and wrapped up, at the time, with the wrong man. After a plea bargain sent her to a probation program for first-time offenders, her case was winding down. But he had an assignment for her.

This month, he dispatched Brackett, who could not be reached for comment for this article, to a state Department of Revenue office near her home. Under his order, she marched confidently to a clerk and asked to buy a specialty license plate for her car. Brackett told the clerk that she wanted the plate to read "Choose Choice."

The clerk replied, as Norwood said she would, that Arkansas did not offer such a plate. That was enough for Norwood. On Nov. 10, on behalf of Brackett, he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, seeking to "vindicate rights secured to her by the 1st and 14th Amendments" -- her rights to free speech and equal protection.

"The state of Arkansas has opened a state-created forum to one viewpoint alone in the ongoing public controversy over abortion," the lawsuit read.

It is the latest legal challenge to stem from what has quietly become one of the most contested venues in the abortion debate: the nation's highways.

With Choose Life Inc.'s steady guidance, Arkansas became the eighth state to approve the license plates. Antiabortion activists are attempting to get the plates approved in 30 more states, said Russ Amerling, the organization's spokesman. Nearly 50,000 plates have been sold nationwide. Most have been sold in Florida, which in 2000 -- when Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill that his predecessor had vetoed -- became the first state to sell the plates.

The Arkansas plates cost $35 apiece, slightly below average. Nationwide, the plates have raised more than $2 million for programs that provide crisis counseling to pregnant women -- provided the programs do not discuss the option of abortion.

"We want to let women see all the options," Amerling said. "She's getting plenty of counsel, unfortunately, and advice to have an abortion. We're just trying to level the playing field."

The license plates have been met with a series of challenges, with mixed results.

In Florida, the plates have survived at least two lawsuits. But in July, a federal judge blocked Louisiana from issuing "Choose Life" plates, saying that they constitute a public forum protected by free speech. And a judge in South Carolina determined last year that the plates were a "clear manifestation of viewpoint discrimination."

In California, the Legislature rejected a proposal to create "Choose Life" plates this fall. That prompted a lawsuit from an antiabortion group and a ruling from a federal judge that the state must stop providing new specialty plates until it fixes its process for selecting them -- because under the current system, the Legislature has "unbridled authority" to suppress a "point of view."

Amerling says he's not worried.

"We are not breaking into a sweat, that's for sure," he said. "We've got a long way to go."

At the center of the Arkansas challenge is Norwood, 49, who is adding another chapter to a storied and often bizarre career.

Originally from the Panhandle of Florida, he grew up in a trailer home and said he was a walking punch line for one of those "You know you're a redneck if ..." jokes. The first member of his family to graduate from college, he garnered his first national headlines before he could finish law school at the University of Arkansas.

In 1985, he became enmeshed in a domestic squabble. A Tulsa, Okla., businessman was accused of hiring a team of assassins to kill him. Fourteen people were eventually sent to prison, but not before Norwood was shot and his car firebombed. A settlement with the magazine accused of carrying advertisements for the would-be assassins gave Norwood enough money to open his own law firm.

Since then, he has made a comfortable living in everyday criminal defense work, largely in representing people accused of drunk driving. He's done well enough that he and his wife own a 4,200-acre duck-hunting spread in rural Arkansas.

The unusual cases, meanwhile, keep coming his way.

There was the local judge who had to resign after reportedly threatening, in open court, to kill one of Norwood's clients, a septic tank cleaner who had illegally spread sewage across farmland.

There was the mother ordered to write an obituary for her child -- though the child was still alive -- as punishment for failing to use a safety seat in the car. Norwood successfully argued in court that the punishment was inappropriate. Norwood even defended a man who was arrested for flipping his middle finger at a state trooper.

"I don't know," he said. "They just do goofy things around here."

Norwood may be many things -- including a publicity hound, his critics charge -- but he is not a bleeding heart liberal. Instead, he is a nondrinking churchgoer who isn't sure he supports abortion rights in some circumstances. Armed with something of a libertarian streak, he has represented, among others, a Ku Klux Klan leader who he said was unfairly accused of petty crimes.

In the case of the license plates, Norwood said, he believes that "Choose Life" is a political statement that does not belong on a state-issued license plate, not when the "other side" has no hope of receiving the same consideration.

"All I'm saying is that in this country, everybody should have equal footing," he said. "Anybody can go to Wal-Mart and get whatever bumper sticker they want. But when the government gets involved in issuing plates for some people and not for others, I've got a problem with that. This is America. We all eat or nobody eats."

Norwood appears to have the law on his side, said Arkansas Atty. Gen. Mike Beebe, who was asked by a state legislator to interpret the new law. In a nonbinding opinion issued in August, Beebe cited court decisions from other states saying that state legislatures cannot discriminate against a political viewpoint. Beebe said Arkansas' new law violates the rights of free speech, equal protection and due process guaranteed in the U.S. and state constitutions.

Advocates for the plates say that the logic is faulty and that the plates are more about promoting adoption than they are about fighting abortion rights.

"Yes, it is a political issue. Yes, there are pro-life overtures," said Rep. Marvin Parks, the Republican leader in the state House of Representatives and a sponsor of the legislation that created the plates. "But the reality is that people have the option to invest some of their money into funds that would go to help a young lady facing a crisis pregnancy with some very difficult choices before her. I think it's very appropriate. I think it is a creative idea."

Parks says advocates for abortion rights aren't prohibited from getting their own plate -- they just don't have the votes in the Legislature to pull it off, and they know it.

"Nobody is boxing them out of the arena to participate in the process or infringe on their right to free speech," he said. "Everybody has a fair shot."

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