Clean finance: Supreme Court strikes down Clean Elections matching funds

Posted: Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court has struck down a provision of a campaign financing system in Arizona that gives extra cash to publicly funded candidates who face privately funded rivals and independent groups.

The 5-4 ruling Monday is the latest in a series of decisions by the court's conservative majority upending campaign finance laws.

The Arizona law was passed in the wake of a public corruption scandal and was intended to reward candidates who forgo raising campaign cash, even in the face of opponents' heavy spending fueled by private money.

The court said the law violates the First Amendment.

"Laws like Arizona's matching funds provision that inhibit robust and wide-open political debate without sufficient justification cannot stand," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the court's majority opinion.

While the Supreme Court struck down the matching-fund provision, the rest of the Clean Elections law remains intact.

"[The ruling] simply means we won't be able to issue matching funds," said Todd Lang of the Clean Elections Commission. "Clean Elections will continue. We'll still be able to fund candidates, but when they get hit by nasty attack ads, we won't be able to fund the response. The voters won't get to hear both sides of the story."

Lang said the Supreme Court stepped in and overruled the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and stopped the matching funds in the middle of the 2010 race. That decision came after an emergency request from the Goldwater Institute.

"Candidates were still able to run ... but it meant less speech, less debate, less opportunities to participate," Lang said.

"It means that a lot fewer candidates are going to be taking public subsidies," said Clint Black of the Goldwater Institute, which filed the suit. "We'll have a more robust electoral system where you won't see so many fringe and frivolous candidates who are only running because they're government handouts."

Arizona voters passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act in 1998. It was designed to allow candidates to run for office without relying on money from lobbyists and special-interest groups.

"The candidates would be beholden to us [the voters] and not the special interests," Lang said. "More than two-thirds of the candidates over the last couple of election cycles -- before the injunction -- ran using Clean Elections. More than half of our current Legislature uses it or used it in the past, at least to get into office."

“This decision protects democratic elections and gets government’s heavy thumb off the scale,” said Nick Dranias, the Goldwater Institute’s director of constitutional studies and the lead attorney in the case, in a news release.

Justice Elena Kagan read her dissent aloud in court Monday, saying the law was a reasonable response to political scandal. She said that by providing candidates with additional money, the law actually provided for more, not less, political speech.

Arizonans "passed a law designed to sever political candidates' dependence on large contributors," Kagan said. "It put into effect a public financing system that attracted large numbers of candidates at a sustainable cost to the state's taxpayers."

This case follows other recent rulings striking down campaign finance laws. Among those were last year's Citizens United decision that removed most limits on election spending by corporations and organized labor, and a 2008 decision that voided the federal "millionaire's amendment" to increase contribution limits for congressional candidates facing wealthy opponents.

Roberts said the outcome in the Arizona case largely followed from the decision voiding the "millionaire's amendment."

But the chief justice — joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — said nothing in the court's decision should be read as an attack on public financing generally.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor signed onto Kagan's dissent.

Nick Nyhart, president of the Public Campaign group that generally favors campaign finance limits, said the only good news out of the decision is that it did nothing to undermine taxpayer-funded campaigns.

William Maurer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice representing the challengers, said the court reaffirmed its opposition to campaign spending laws that seek to level the playing field.