In one of several giant rulings expected this month, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state of Texas isn’t obligated to issue specialty license plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board refused to issue a special SCV plate bearing a Confederate flag. That greatly angered the Sons of Confederate Veterans, including their spokesperson Ben Jones, who once played “Cooter” on Dukes of Hazzard. Perfect.
In a narrow 5-4 ruling issued today in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Supremes said Texas was within its rights to refuse to issue a plate with a Confederate flag on it. SCV had argued that refusing to make the plate violated their free speech rights. But the SCOTUS opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, said that the license plates themselves constitute speech by the government, and so they’re to decide to reject plates that they deem to be hate speech. Breyer wrote that license plates are implicitly different from, say, bumper stickers:
[A] person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intends to convey to the public that the State has endorsed that message. If not, the individual could simply display the message in question in larger letters on a bumper sticker right next to the plate. But the individual prefers a license plate design to the purely private speech expressed through bumper stickers. That may well be because Texas’s license plate designs convey government agreement with the message displayed.
This particular argument has been raging since 2009, when SCV first submitted an application for the license plate design, which the Motor Vehicles Board explained in a ruling that it was rejecting basic on public comments that showed “that many members of the general public find the design offensive.” It’s frankly not all that often that Texas rejects a license plate design for being too conservative: they have, for example, specialty “Choose Life” license plates whose proceeds fund crisis pregnancy centers and anti-choice maternity homes.
Ben Jones, the SCV spokesman, told the New York Times back in March that the Confederate flag represented “the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are.” K.
What’s fascinating here, too, is that the usually arch-conservative Justice Clarence Thomas joined the three other liberal justices and Breyer in ruling against the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He even split from Antonin Scalia, his usual identical twin in every ruling. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissenting opinion; he claimed that the majority decision “establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that government finds displeasing.”
There are even bigger rulings coming down the pike this week. Chief among them is King v. Burwell, which challenges the payment of healthcare subsidies in states that use federal exchange marketplaces. If the case is successful, up to 6.4 million people could lose their subsidies and become unable to afford health insurance, most of them in the South. In effect, the ruling could destabilize the entire Affordable Care Act. That ruling is expected tomorrow.
Ben Jones, national spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, pictured outside the Supreme Court in March. Image via AP.