Judge rules against driver who wanted 'Irish' on plates
April 25, 2001
(from the Top Story section)
By TRACY SCHMALER
Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER — Carol Ann Martin is putting a whole new meaning to the
phrase fighting Irish.
The Wallingford woman said Tuesday she would appeal a Superior Court
decision that upheld the state’s refusal to give her vanity license
plates with the word IRISH.
“I’m pretty upset about it,” she said. “I’m not upset about
it being denied. I thought there might be a chance they’d deny it. But
this offends me. It almost brought me to tears. I’ve ended up the
racist and I don’t get it.”
Martin said she was dismayed to see Washington Superior Judge Matthew
Katz clump Irish in with other ethnic slurs that were clearly offensive.
“This opinion offended me,” she said. “How did I get painted a
racist? There’s something wrong here.”
Katz ruled recently that the state Department of Motor Vehicles acted
correctly when it denied Martin’s request because the word she wanted
to use — IRISH — could be considered offensive or confusing to the
Katz found the department’s rules regarding vanity plates were
reasonable and objective. While IRISH may not necessarily be offensive
on its face, he wrote, the department could open the door to other more
offensive variations if it allowed this.
“Even in the context of IRISH — evocative as it may be of
leprechauns, shamrocks and Galway Bay — the need to avoid viewpoint
discrimination can be quickly apparent,” he wrote. “If IRISH is
permitted, because most Vermonters would not find it offensive, is
NOIRISH? Although cinema buffs might consider this latter example
intriguing, more folks would probably find it evocative of ‘No Irish
Need Apply,’ an employment notice actually and reasonably offensive to
But Martin said she thought the logic was flawed.
“This decision, I don’t see the common sense in it,” she said.
“I didn’t apply for NOIRISH. If someone applied for I-T, would they
deny it because someone else might apply for S-H-I-T?”
The law says the commissioner can reject a word or phrase if it is
considered to be offensive or confusing to the general public. The
regulations attached to the law say, among other things, that a
combination of letters or numbers that refer, in any language to race,
religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation,
disability status or political affiliation are not to be issued.
The rules, Katz found, laid out clear objective guidelines for DMV
officials to follow in reviewing vanity plate applications.
“(Department of) Motor Vehicle employees should not be expected to
engage in continual ‘sensitivity roundtables,’ lacking clear and
objective guidelines to decide which are offensive to the average
Vermonter and which are not,” he wrote.
“It’s disappointing,” said Sen. John Bloomer, a Rutland lawyer
who heard about Martin’s case and decided to represent her for free in
Bloomer argued that the regulations contradicted the legislative
intent in crafting the original statute because the law calls for the
DMV commissioner to use discretion in issuing license plates.
William Griffin, the chief assistant attorney general who argued the
case for the state, agreed with the judge.
“You have to have a standard. You can’t have DMV officials
playing it by ear every time,” he said.
Katz ruled that Martin’s intent, which was to display her ethnic
heritage on her license plate, was an irrelevant point, and he noted
that the license plate was not the best venue for such a communiqué.
“We also have very much in mind that this case is not about what
message petitioner may send from her vehicle,” wrote Katz, whose own
license plate is MIK, his initials. “She may affix any bumper sticker
she wishes. Instead, it is about what message she may send from her
state-issued license plate.”
Martin applied for the license plate last April. In previous years,
she had put IRISH or some similar variation on her plates with no
objection from state officials.
But recent regulations adopted by the department changed the way
officials there process these applications.
“I’m happy the judge found the way he did,” said DMV
Commissioner Bonnie Rutledge. “Everybody has a different opinion on
what should be issued and what should not be issued. This takes a little
of that subjective reasoning out of it.”
Martin’s case has evoked spirited discussion among lawmakers and
others, some of whom are baffled by the rejection. Despite the strident
opinions, Rutledge said the existing rules make it much easier for her
“We had many more problems under the old rules,” she said. There
are 36,000 special plates attached to cars in Vermont. At a cost of $20
a year, the plates bring in about $600,000 in annual revenues.
Rutledge said the department spent a lot of time on content reviews,
including testing the reflected images of different combinations in case
some applicants try to sneak by a prohibited phrase by changing the
spelling so it can only be read when looking at it in a mirror.
One combination of letters slipped through the cracks a few years ago
when a driver applied and received a plate with the phrase SHTHPNS. The
department tried to revoke the plate, but the driver resisted and took
the case to court. A federal appeals court in New York heard arguments
in that case earlier this month.
Martin said Tuesday she would try to appeal the case to the Vermont