Supreme Court: Matching funds in Arizona election law violate free speech
The Supreme Court rejected by 5 to 4 a portion of Arizona's campaign finance law that provides state matching funds to candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents.
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At issue in Monday’s consolidated cases, Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett (10-238) and McComish v. Bennett (10-239), was a provision of Arizona law that provided a near dollar-for-dollar match to candidates participating in the public-finance system whenever a nonparticipating candidate outspent the initial public funding to his or her opponent.
The matching funds were meant to keep elections competitive between privately-funded and public-funded candidates.
Under Arizona’s 1998 Citizens Clean Elections Act, candidates who are willing to forego private fundraising may finance their campaigns with state money. First they must qualify by demonstrating a certain level of support by raising a required number of $5 donations.
Once qualified, the publicly funded candidate receives a lump sum grant to pay for election expenses. This portion of the law was not under challenge.
The public funding option is available to all candidates, and it is up to each candidate to decide whether to abide by the public-funding system or rely instead on private sources of campaign money.
The controversial part of the law deals with the mechanism enacted to ensure that privately funded candidates do not automatically outspend their competition.
How funds were awarded
The matching funds were awarded to every candidate who agreed to participate in the public-funding option – not just the most competitive candidates. In addition, under the Arizona law, publicly funded candidates were to receive matching funds whenever an independent advocacy group spent money in support of a privately funded candidate or spent money in a way that opposed a publicly funded candidate.
Opponents of the law said it penalized privately funded candidates and created a disincentive for their political speech by offering a campaign money windfall to his or her opponents whenever spending levels in the campaign rose above a certain government-authorized level.
Supporters countered that the law fostered more political speech by providing more money to a range of other campaigns. They also said it helped break the corrupting link between politics and wealthy special interests in elections by providing a single source of campaign money from the government itself.
Chief Justice Roberts said the majority was not questioning the wisdom of public funding of political elections. “That is not our business,” he said. But he added that states seeking to enact public finance scheme must do so in a manner consistent with the First Amendment.
“Laws like Arizona’s matching funds provision that inhibit robust and wide-open political debate without sufficient justification cannot stand,” he said.
Kagan disagreed. She said the measure is the way Arizonans sought to fight the problem of political corruption and scandal.
“Less corruption, more speech. Robust campaigns leading to the election of representatives not beholden to the few, but accountable to the many. The people of Arizona might have expected a decent respect for those objectives,” Kagan wrote.
"Today, they do not get it.”