A US court was today due to begin hearing the opening statements in a pair of lawsuits seeking to have the state of California's stem cell programme overturned. The claimants want to invalidate the law that created the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which is authorised to distribute $3 billion in research grants for stem cell research projects, including those using human embryos. The lawsuits claim that the programme is unconstitutional because the spending of taxpayer's money must be under state control.
In November 2004, 59 per cent of Californians voted in favour of Proposition 71, which established the CIRM and authorised it to issue bonds to fund $3 billion of grants for human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. But since then, the two lawsuits have delayed the operations 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 the state.
Last November, in a hearing at the Alameda County Superior Court, Judge Bonnie Lewman Sabraw ruled that the legal arguments relied upon by the stem cell programme's opponents did not stand up, which should have meant that the first grants could then have been issued. Judge Sabraw had been asked to throw out the lawsuits - issued by pro-life and 'politically conservative interest groups' - which were deliberately designed to disrupt the work of the State's stem cell agency.
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 was scheduled - although it was said that the lawyers would have to be 'extraordinarily creative if they hope to keep the lawsuits moving forward'.
Many people are of the opinion that the CIRM will overcome the legal action. For example, John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said that 'the stem cell institute's recent responsiveness to public input in a number of areas is encouraging', adding 'the stem cell oversight committee members finally understand they are a state agency and must involve the public'. James Harrison, a lawyer acting for the CIRM, said that it 'has been under a microscope for the last year and been subject to a fair degree of criticism'. He added: 'In some sense, this trial gives us a chance to prove what this agency has accomplished and how accountable it has been'.
Meanwhile, in Maryland, two legislative committees have approved a bill (HB1) that would authorise state funding of ES cell research, meaning that it should be debated in the state's House of Delegates next week. It was introduced in January by Michael Busch, the speaker of Maryland's House of Delegates, as the Maryland Stem Cell Research Act of 2006 - the first bill of the new legislative session. If passed, the bill will authorise funds of $25 million a year for five years on research using ES cells, as well as adult stem cells. The Health Panel approved the bill by 14 votes to 10 and it then went to the Appropriations Committee, where it was approved by 19 votes to seven.