Gavel Grab

Public Finance Ruling: In the Court's Words

When the Supreme Court ruled Monday that a provision in Arizona’s public financing law violated the First Amendment, it split 5-4 along ideological lines.

The views of the sharply divided court are reflected in the majority opinion, by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and the dissent, authored by Justice Elena Kagan. The court struck down a provision permitting publicly funded candidates to get additional dollars, called matching or “trigger” funds, when privately financed candidates or independent groups spend more (see Gavel Grab). The case is called Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett.

“Laws like Arizona’s matching funds provision that inhibit robust and wide-open political debate without sufficient justification cannot stand,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, according to a New York Times article. The majority said rights of privately financed candidates were violated by the provision, because these candidates may shy from spending campaign cash if they’re aware it could result in the government paying for speech by a publicly funded foe.

“ ‘Leveling the playing field,’ ” he wrote, “can sound like a good thing. But in a democracy, campaigning for office is not a game.”

At another point, he added, “We do not today call into question the wisdom of public financing as a means of funding political candidacy.”

In her dissent, Justice Kagan disagreed with the majority’s premise, saying that First Amendment values were advanced by the Arizona statute.

“The system discriminated against no ideas and prevented no speech,” she wrote. She characterized the impact of the public financing law as “less corruption” and “more speech.”

Justice Kagan also wrote, “If an ordinary citizen, without the hindrance of a law degree, thought this result an upending of First Amendment values, he would be correct,” according to an Election Law blog article.

“The First Amendment’s core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate. Nothing in Arizona’s anti-corruption statute … violates this constitutional protection,” she wrote, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

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

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