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Souter Lost Supreme Court Case on License Motto

July 25, 1990

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ When David Souter was attorney general, New Hampshire lost in the U.S. Supreme Court one of its most widely followed court cases, brought against a couple for covering the ″Live Free or Die″ motto on their license plates.

George and Maxine Maynard taped over the motto in 1975, citing religious objections. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses and said they didn’t believe that freedom is more important than life.

Their plates were taken away, and after refusing to pay a fine, George Maynard spent 15 days in jail.

Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., was attorney general at the time.

A three-judge federal panel upheld the Maynards’ right to obliterate the motto, but flamboyant Gov. Meldrim Thomson vowed to fight them all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and ordered Souter, who succeeded Rudman, to proceed with the appeal.

Souter said he did not see the state’s action as infringing on the Maynards’ right to free speech.

″This was not an articulated statement of words - it was an act,″ he said.

The high court didn’t see it that way, and ruled in 1977 that states may not force their residents to display mottoes or other ideological messages on license plates or other personal property.

″The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to hold points of view different from the majority and to refuse to foster, in the way New Hampshire commands, an idea they find morally objectionable,″ the court wrote.

Souter said he was not surprised.

″We realized this was a difficult case since the law clearly didn’t favor us,″ he said.

Eight months after the high court ruled, the Maynards still were trying to collect $21,000 in legal fees from the state. So, a U.S. marshal, armed with a warrant, went to a busy state-owned liquor store and ordered the manager to hand over the money. The manager called the governor, who promised payment and the money came through two weeks later.

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