Friday, October 14, 2005

Stem Cell Showdown in Apricot City

The stem cell stage is now set for a bit of courtroom drama Nov. 17 at 8:30 a.m. in a community east of San Francisco that was once known as "The Apricot City."

Directing the affair in Department 512 in Hayward will be Superior Court Judge Bonnie Lewman Sabraw, who was Alameda County trial judge of the year in 2001 and who was named to the bench by former Gov. Pete Wilson.

At stake is the existence of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The Life Legal Foundation, which was deeply involved in the Terry Schiavo case, and a couple of conservative groups called People's Advocate and the National Tax Limitation Foundation, want to euthanize the stem cell agency.

Their contention is that CIRM violates the California constitution despite the fact that it was created by a constitutional amendment approved by voters in a process permitted by the constitution. Their suit says that the agency is not under "the exclusive control" of the state government.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer argued in a brief earlier this week, "The voters' will as expressed through the initiative process is entitled to great deference. Yet the mere pendency of these challenges, even though they are without merit, has effectively prevented the state from marketing the bonds(to fund stem cell research).''

Entering the stage this week was an array of groups that filed an argument supporting the state's position. Prepared by the Los Angeles law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, it said, "Given the highly politicized nature of the subject, embryonic stem cell research remains especially vulnerable to shifts in political winds and the political fortunes of particular officials and candidates."

The brief continued, "No one wants to start down a new path of research that shows great promise only to have funding for that research up for grabs every election cycle."

The filing by Munger, whose clients include Warren Buffet, noted that the petitioners had something at stake. For example, Munger said, some of the organizations are engaged in scientific research and, "like other scientific institutions in this country, have benefited from public financial support."

Reporter Terri Somers of the San Diego Union Tribune, in fact, pointed out that the Burnham Institute, the Salk Research Institute, Stanford University and the University of Southern California, which supported the Munger filing, have been selected for CIRM grants worth millions of dollars.

Other supporters include the Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox foundations. A complete list can be found in the CIRM press release.

While the friend-of-the-court filing noted that Proposition 71 created CIRM "notwithstanding any other provision of the constitution," its main focus was on the effectiveness and history of the peer review process that has been used at the national and other levels to make grants.

It said, "In the United States, decisions concerning government funding of research proposals have largely been separated from politics. That separation has been achieved by a system that allows political input when establishing broad policy goals, followed by scientific decision-making through the peer review process to determine which specific proposals should be funded to achieve those goals. Peer review ensures that the quality of research proposals is judged by scientific merit and by the likelihood that the research proposal will achieve the goal of improving public health."

We should note that the People's Advocate and National Tax Limitation Foundation are two groups that have supported the virtually unfettered right of the people to the initiative process. It is odd that they now find the voters' will dubious.

Reporter Bernadette Tansey of the San Francisco Chronicle also wrote about this week's filings.

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