Gavel Grab

JAS: Public Financing 'More Critical Than Ever'

Justice at Stake’s executive director, Bert Brandenburg, called the Supreme Court’s ruling in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett on Monday “disappointing, but not fatal for America’s courts.”

The Supreme Court struck down a key provision in Arizona’s public financing law on a 5-4 vote (see Gavel Grab). Brandenburg said in a JAS press release:

“Today’s ruling is disappointing, but not fatal for America’s courts. State judicial elections are drowning in special-interest spending. Properly crafted public financing laws are more critical than ever, so that judges do not have to dial for dollars from major donors who may appear before them in court.”

Brandenburg emphasized that while the high court voided an important funding mechanism in Arizona’s law, called “triggered matching funds” for participating candidates, it affirmed earlier rulings upholding the constitutionality of public financing itself.

In 39 states, judges face some type of election, and public financing has proven to be a powerful reform. Campaign spending in judicial elections exploded during the last decade, Justice at Stake said. In 2000 to 2009, state high-court candidates raised $206.9 million, more than double the $83.3 million raised in the previous decade, and special interests pumped in tens of millions more on independent TV ads.

Four states have adopted public financing for judicial elections with laws that use a provision like Arizona’s. They are New Mexico, Wisconsin, West Virginia and North Carolina. Polls in the latter three states all show broad bipartisan voter support for public financing of judicial elections.

According to Brandenburg, a case in the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals continues to debate the issue whether triggered matching funds may be constitutional in the specific context of judicial elections. JAS and the Brennan Center for Justice argue in that case that judges have a unique role in our government, with a constitutional duty to be impartial (see earlier Gavel Grab post).

Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett was consolidated with another case, McComish v. Bennett.

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