Key Florida campaign-finance provision blocked by federal court

A panel of the Eleventh US Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction on a provision of Florida's campaign-finance law aimed at leveling the playing field for candidates, citing free-speech rights.

Rick Wilson/The Florida Times-Union/AP
Florida gubernatorial candidate and multimillionaire Rick Scott steps onto his campaign bus in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday. A panel of the Eleventh US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a provision in the state's campaign finance law violates Mr. Scott’s free speech rights.

A federal appeals court in Atlanta has blocked Florida election officials from providing potentially millions of dollars from the state’s campaign finance system to Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum in his race against multimillionaire challenger Rick Scott.

A panel of the Eleventh US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 on Friday that a provision of Florida’s campaign finance law would violate Mr. Scott’s free speech right to spend his own money to wage a political campaign for public office.

The court issued a temporary injunction barring Florida officials from distributing public campaign funds to Mr. McCollum. The appeals court said the public finance system’s funding mechanism would grant an unfair advantage to McCollum.

“At bottom, the Florida public campaign financing system appears primarily to advantage candidates with little money or who exercise restraint in fundraising,” wrote Judge William Pryor for the panel. “The system levels the electoral playing field, and that purpose is constitutionally problematic.”

The action comes only weeks before the August 24 Republican primary and at a time when McCollum’s campaign war chest is reportedly running short of cash.

Ruling comes at crucial time

Scott, a wealthy former health care executive, is using his own funds to finance his campaign for the Republican nomination, rather than relying on the state’s campaign finance system.

In contrast, McCollum is relying on the public finance system, including a provision that would entitle him to a dollar-for-dollar match once Scott spends more than $24.9 million. Scott is reported to be near or past that spending level now.

At that point, under Florida law, McCollum would be entitled to receive an “excess spending subsidy” designed to level the playing field between political candidates who agree to use the campaign finance system and those who do not.

A federal judge upheld the Florida system two weeks ago, saying it helped the state fight corruption and the appearance of correction.

In his appeal, Scott argued that Florida’s “excess spending subsidy” created an incentive for him to reduce his level of campaign spending to prevent triggering a provision that would award his political opponent with campaign money to use against him.

That is an unconstitutional burden on Scott’s free speech rights, his lawyers argued.

McCollum’s lawyers warned that an injunction would seriously harm their client’s election prospects because it would “leave him at a severe disadvantage for the crucial homestretch of the campaign and would impede his ability to convey his message to the electorate.”

McCollum would still be subject to Florida’s $500 limit on individual and corporate contributions, making it difficult for him to keep pace with an anticipated flood of campaign advertising paid for by Scott from personal funds.

The Millionaire's Amendment

In overturning the federal judge and issuing the temporary injunction, the appeals court cited a 2008 US Supreme Court decision in which the justices struck down the so-called Millionaire’s Amendment in the federal campaign finance law.

Congress had sought to level the playing field between self-funded candidates and those who agreed to abide by campaign finance restrictions. Under the law, a wealthy self-financed candidate would continue to be subject to the standard contribution limit of $2,300. In contrast, opponents of “millionaire” candidates would have their contribution limit tripled to $6,900 per individual, making it significantly easier for them to raise money.

In that case, Davis v. Federal Election Commission, the court ruled 5 to 4 that the campaign finance law created an unprecedented penalty that violated the First Amendment’s protection of political speech – including self-funded political speech.

The Eleventh Circuit panel said they were applying that decision to Florida’s excess spending subsidy.

“We conclude that the burden that an excess spending subsidy imposes on nonparticipating candidates is harsher than the penalty in Davis,” Pryor wrote.

"None of this is to say that the public financing system of Florida does not benefit the people of Florida or that public financing generally is not a system worthy of public resources,” he wrote. “It is only to say that Florida … cannot impose a special and potentially significant burden on the First Amendment rights of nonparticipating candidates who do not wish, for whatever reason, to accept public money.”


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