Campaign finance reform advocates offered varying assessments of the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s review of an Arizona law for public financing of political candidates.
On Monday, the Supreme Court announced it would review a challenge to the statute, designed to limit the influence of big political spending and special interest campaign contributions (see Gavel Grab). The cases before the court are called McComish v. Bennett and Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett.
The Brennan Center for Justice, which is helping defend the law, called the Supreme Court review a “critical turning point”:
“Marking a critical turning point – this will be the first time the Supreme Court has ruled in a public financing case since its decision nearly 35 years ago in Buckley v. Valeo – what the Supreme Court rules in McComish may set the limits for what campaign reform is possible for decades to come.”
The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 issued a statement that emphasizes a narrower perspective:
“To be certain, regardless of how the Court ultimately decides the relatively narrow issue before it in McComish, it will not mark the death of public financing…While some states like Arizona have public financing systems that use trigger funds, other states have successfully implemented public financing systems for decades without trigger funds.”
These extra funds, the two groups explained, flow to a candidate participating in Arizona’s public funding system when a privately funded candidate spends more than limit set under the law, thereby “triggering” the release of additional dollars to his or her opponent.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, suggested that a Supreme Court ruling could take on greater significance if it more broadly addresses public financing laws adopted to curb the threat of corruption in political contests, according to a USA Today article.
There are similar matching fund programs in nine other states, a Christian Science Monitor article reported. In two of the states, federal appeals courts have enjoined the statutes (click here for a Gavel Grab post about Connecticut, and here for a post about Florida).
Critics have challenged the constitutionality of the Arizona provision, contending that giving taxpayer matching funds to qualifying candidates amounts to a penalty on their privately-funded opponents’ speech by inhibiting their fundraising.
“What we’re challenging is a system by which the government provides funding but also puts its thumb on the scales to favor a publicly funded candidate. The ultimate decision about whether public financing systems are constitutional is for another day,” said William Maurer of the Institute for Justice, who is counsel to the Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s PAC. He was quoted by National Law Journal.
From the viewpoint of the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, however, the provision is sound. The groups said, “[T]he challenged ‘trigger’ provision merely provides opt-in candidates with additional public funds when they are opposed by high-spending privately-financed candidates and/or independent expenditures. This increases their ability to speak without imposing any limits on the speech of their opponents. The challenged law places no restrictions on campaign fundraising or spending or speech.”
The challengers rely extensively on Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Davis v. Federal Election Commission. To learn more about Citizens United, read a JAS news release about the decision, or the JAS amicus brief; in Davis, the court threw out the so-called “millionaire’s amendment” in federal campaign finance law. That provision boosted limits on contributions to a candidate for Congress if a wealthy opponent spent more than $350,000 from his own pocket on his campaign.
The Brennan Center is a partner of the Justice at Stake Campaign, and the Campaign Legal Center is a JAS partner on state reform issues.