Less than a year after cutting back on campaign-finance reforms at the federal level in its controversial Citizens United decision, the US Supreme Court has set the stage for another major showdown over election-funding reform, this one in Arizona.
The high court on Monday agreed to examine the constitutionality of a campaign-finance reform program that provides state money to certain candidates when their opponent exceeds government-set campaign spending limits.
Arizona’s Citizens Clean Elections Act is designed to level the playing field among political candidates by creating a strong incentive for candidates to limit the amount they spend in statewide campaigns.
The system is aimed at undercutting the influence of campaign contributions from special interests. It is also designed to foster a more substantive discussion of the issues rather than sustain a free-for-all of expensive attack advertisements cluttering the air waves.
Candidates that agree to pre-set spending limits receive public funding for their campaigns. Those opposed to the campaign-spending limits or who wish to use their own money to fund their campaigns are free to opt out of the program.
The dispute is over what happens next.
Under the Arizona system, if a nonparticipating candidate spends more than the state’s pre-set limit for a particular seat, the participating candidates are no longer required to abide by the spending limits. Instead, under the program, the state provides all participating candidates with matching funds equal to the amount being spent by the nonparticipating candidate.
The program is designed to create a strong incentive for candidates to participate in the reform effort and limit their campaign spending.
The question before the Supreme Court is whether the state can set up a program to deter some political candidates from engaging in political speech beyond a level deemed appropriate by the government.
Those challenging the law say defiant candidates who spend more than the government-set limit are punished under a state program that provides an equal amount of extra funding to the candidates’ opponents.
In 2008, a group of candidates and advocacy groups sued, seeking to have the 1998 law struck down as a violation of free speech rights. A federal judge enjoined enforcement of the measure. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law.
In an unusual move, the high court reversed the Ninth Circuit in June, reinstating the federal judge’s injunction pending final action by the Supreme Court.
“The matching-funds system brazenly violates the First Amendment right of candidates to speak without having government put its thumb on the scale for their opponents,” Clint Bolick, a lawyer representing political candidates challenging the law, said in a statement.
“We’re ecstatic that we have a chance to put an end to the worst feature of taxpayer subsidies for politicians,” he said.
Campaign reform advocates defend the Arizona law as an effective protection against government corruption.
“The Arizona Clean Elections system, in effect over a decade, helped move the state beyond egregious corruption and recurrent scandal,” said Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
“This law has boosted speech while combating corruption,” he said. “We believe this provision is constitutionally sound, and advances First Amendment values rather than burdening them.”
Similar matching-fund reform efforts exist in nine other states: Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Florida. The programs in Connecticut and Florida have been enjoined by federal appeals courts.
The high court consolidated two Arizona appeals into a single case for argument next year. The cases are Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett and McComish v. Bennett.