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California stem cell challenges suffer setback

5 December 2005
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 337

Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the US state of California's stem cell programme have been knocked back by a judge at Almeda County Superior Court. Judge Bonnie Lewman Sabraw has ruled that the legal arguments relied upon by opponents of the stem cell programme do not stand up, meaning that California may now be able to issue its first grants for work on human embryonic stem cells (ES cells).

The California Superior Court was asked to throw out lawsuits issued by pro-life and 'politically conservative interest groups', designed to disrupt the work of the State's stem cell agency. In November 2004, Californians voted in favour of Proposition 71, which established the California Institute of Reproductive Medicine (CIRM) and agreed to it issuing bonds to fund $3 billion of grants for ES cell research. But since then, two lawsuits were issued to challenge the constitutionality of the CIRM - the lawsuits allege that because the board members of the agency are not elected officials, they have no authority to distribute public funds. The delay caused by the lawsuits means that the agency could not start work, meaning that no funds for ES cell research have so far been issued.

In November, Tamar Pachter, a lawyer from the State Attorney General's office, asked Judge Sabraw to throw out the two lawsuits. 'We are here because voters of this state enacted Proposition 71 last November and we haven't been able to do what the voters asked us to do because we are locked up in litigation', she said. Robert Klein, chairman of the CIRM, said at the time that he had opened negotiations with 'charitable organisations and wealthy benefactors to loan the agency up to $50 million until the lawsuits are resolved'.

Judge Sabraw said the plaintiffs had failed to overcome a fundamental presumption that voter mandates - such as that given to Proposition 71 - must be honoured unless they were 'clearly, positively and unmistakably unconstitutional'. However, the lawsuits were not thrown out in their entirety and a further hearing has been scheduled for next week - but the lawyers will have to be 'extraordinarily creative if they hope to keep the lawsuits moving forward'. Robert Klein, commenting on the decision, said that although he would have preferred 'a complete cessation of this litigation', the 'very high legal standard' set by the judge would mean the programme could go ahead. As a result of Judge Sabraw's decision, the CIRM hopes to be able to move forward with work by January.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Foes of stem cell program undaunted by court defeat
San Francisco Chronicle |  1 December 2005
Judge knocks stem-cell suits but lets them stand
San Francisco Business Times |  30 November 2005
Judge's ruling favors stem cell agency, but keeps lawsuits alive
Miami Herald |  30 November 2005
Stem cell program wins key court ruling, poised to issue grants
San Francisco Chronicle |  30 November 2005
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