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Arguments Begin in Lawsuits Over State Stem Cell Institute

Times Staff Writer

Opponents of the $3-billion stem cell research initiative approved by California voters characterized it Monday as fraught with conflicts of interest and so unaccountable to the state and taxpayers that it is unconstitutional.

A deputy attorney general countered that the legal challenges that have held up public spending by the state stem cell institute are “tortured interpretations of the constitution.”

The opening statements came in the first day of a trial in Alameda County Superior Court over two lawsuits that challenged the initiative. The trial is expected to last a week and could determine the fate of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, created in 2004 when 59% of voters passed Proposition 71. As the trial got underway, half a dozen patients in wheelchairs who might benefit from stem cell research lined the small courtroom southeast of San Francisco. Philanthropists who support the research and religious conservatives who oppose it were also present.

The lawsuits have blocked spending on research, leaving patients such as Karen Miner, 54, of Dixon, frustrated. “I understand if you are opposed for religious reasons,” she said. “So then don’t take the cure. But don’t deny me.”

The crux of the lawsuits -- one by People’s Advocate and the National Tax Limitation Foundation, the second by the California Family Bioethics Council -- is that lack of direct state control of the 29-member oversight committee that will disburse grants violates the state constitution.

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Some of the opponents and their lawyers are also ideologically opposed to the destruction of embryos to extract stem cells and are seeking to block such research. In his brief opening statement, People’s Advocate attorney Robert Taylor contended that training grants approved by the institute’s oversight committee -- but not yet funded -- “were not authorized by Proposition 71.”

Furthermore, he said, alternate committee members on key subcommittees had voted on important matters, although “nothing in the statute authorizes the use of alternates for working group members.

“We believe this board acts more like a private board than a public board,” he told Judge Bonnie Lewman Sabraw, who will rule on the case.

David Llewellyn, representing the California Family Bioethics Council, added that the initiative failed to address conflicts of interest by committee members who have hefty biotechnology investments or have interests in research institutions that could benefit from the grants. But Deputy Atty. Gen. Tamar Pachter countered that the argument the plaintiffs are making has only succeeded when state funds are being channeled to some non-state purpose.

The oversight board is not only appointed by the state, but is spending funds for a state purpose -- stem cell research, she said. Furthermore, she said, the criticisms raised by the plaintiffs about potential conflicts of interest and how intellectual property will be managed have already been resolved through a transparent public process.


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