But the court, in a 5 to 4 ruling, said the law impermissibly forces privately funded candidates and independent political organizations to either restrain their spending or risk triggering matching funds to their publicly financed opponents.
“The First Amendment embodies our choice as a nation that, when it comes to such speech, the guiding principle is freedom — the ‘unfettered interchange of ideas’ — not whatever the state may view as fair,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Under Roberts, the court has sided every time with those who challenge government restrictions on campaign finance. The court’s conservative majority — Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — has declared that major portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act are unconstitutional.
And the loosening of spending constraints on corporations and unions in last year’s
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
was a game-changing decision that roiled the midterm elections.
“The court’s decision today, like other recent decisions, makes clear that the First Amendment is not an exception to campaign finance laws; it is the rule,” said Institute for Justice lawyer Bill Maurer, who argued the challengers’ case.
Monica Youn, who heads the money in politics project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the court appears to be creating “a new set of rights” that she characterized as “the right to speak without response” and the “right to preserve monetary advantage.”
New Justice Elena Kagan, reading her dissent from the bench for the first time, seemed to emerge as a spokeswoman for the minority, saying that states have an interest in combatting “the stranglehold of special interests on elected officials.”
“The First Amendment’s core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate,” Kagan said. “Nothing in Arizona’s anti-corruption statute, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, violates this constitutional protection.”
Four states — Maine, New Mexico, North Carolina and Wisconsin — have similar “trigger funds” in their public campaign finance laws, as do some cities, including New York and San Francisco. These laws are now open to challenge.
Advocates of campaign finance restrictions found a silver lining in Roberts’ assertion that “we do not today call into question the wisdom of public financing as a means of funding political candidacy.” The court ruled in 1976 that the presidential public financing system was constitutional.