Supreme Court to weigh constitutionality of Arizona public campaign finance law

Arizona's controversial new immigration law has left one family in a frightened limbo, as they consider whether the mother should stay in Phoenix or try to leave without being arrested.
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 10:58 PM

The Supreme Court will again review government efforts to regulate campaign spending, agreeing to consider an Arizona law that distributes subsidies to publicly funded candidates who face big-spending opponents.

The decision was not a surprise, as justices in June had blocked a portion of the state's 12-year-old Clean Elections program, which authorizes public money for state candidates who bypass most private fundraising. The court stopped the state from providing "matching funds" to those candidates, which become available when political opponents or outside groups spend in excess of state limits.

It will be the court's first foray into campaign finance regulation since its controversial 5 to 4 decision in January in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission . That ruling said unions and corporations could spend unlimited amounts from their general treasuries to advocate for and against candidates.

Opponents of the Arizona law say it also unconstitutionally limits the free speech of privately funded candidates and groups, who they say are forced to cut back their spending to avoid enabling their opponents to receive more public money.

The outcome of the case could have enormous consequences for public campaign finance efforts, which are based on the notion that providing public funds for campaigns reduces the potential for corruption that can come with private fundraising.

Campaign finance expert Richard Hasen of the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles wrote in a blog post over the weekend that matching funds are one of the best incentives for coaxing candidates to accept public financing.

"The whole point of the extra matching funds in the Arizona plan is to give candidates assurance they won't be vastly outspent in their election," Hasen wrote.

"While an adverse ruling by the Supreme Court . . . would not mean that all public financing systems would be unconstitutional, it would eliminate one of the best ways to create effective public financing systems."

Others who support public financing emphasized the narrowness of the case - Arizona and a handful of other states provide matching funds to candidates who are outspent. Groups such as Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center said that the public financing system used in presidential elections does not contain a provision for matching funds, and neither do proposals to extend such a system to other federal races.

The Supreme Court has not looked kindly on efforts to create a level playing field for political candidates. In 2008, the court by a 5 to 4 vote struck the "millionaire's amendment" in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act. That provision allowed candidates to raise money in excess of contribution limits if his or her opponent was spending large sums of personal wealth.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority that such a scheme violated the free speech rights of the wealthy candidate.

Arizona insists its law is different. Voters approved the system in 1998, when the state was in the midst of a scandal involving legislators accepting campaign contributions and bribes to support gambling legislation. At one point, 10 percent of the Arizona legislature faced civil or criminal charges related to the scandal.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company