Gavel Grab

Impact of Public Financing Ruling Examined

A staff attorney told a group of West Virginia legislators that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett blunts but does not kill the state’s pilot public funding program for judicial candidates.

This news was reported by an Associated Press article. The high court struck down a provision in Arizona’s public campaign financing law that furnished extra taxpayer dollars to participating candidates when privately funded foes or independent groups spent more. It was called a “trigger funds” provision.

Unlike the program challenged in Arizona, West Virginia’s pilot program applies to state supreme court candidates, and it contains a similar provision that could be vulnerable.

The constitutionality of public financing in general was affirmed by the ruling. Yet the ruling “leaves participating candidates vulnerable to being outspent by third parties or opponents who opt out of the program,” the AP said about West Virginia’s pilot plan.

West Virginia is one of four states that have enacted public financing programs for judicial elections, to reduce the influence of campaign cash in the courtroom. The states’ laws have provisions like the one tossed out in Arizona Free Enterprise Club.

West Virginia is one of a number of states and localities wrestling with the fallout of Arizona Free Enterprise Club. A Los Angeles Times article was headlined, “L.A. may scale back its campaign finance law.”

In Huffington Post, Adam Skaggs of the Brennan Center for Justice wrote a commentary defending the importance and constitutionality of overall public financing programs in the wake of Arizona Free Enterprise Club.

“Even the [Supreme Court] majority recognized that voluntary public financing without triggers is fully constitutional,” Skaggs wrote. “That is crucial, because no reform works better than public financing to fight corruption and restore confidence in our democracy.”

Skaggs laid out some of the top arguments made by campaign finance reformers in support of public financing:

“Public funding ensures that voters remain at the center of our democracy — and that elections aren’t bought and paid for by special interests. Public financing limits the influence of big money campaign donations, encourages candidates with limited resources to run for office, and increases competitiveness and diversity in elections. It frees politicians from the burden and distraction involved in constant fundraising. And for more than a decade, public financing in Arizona prevented another scandal like AzScam.”

He also touted the features of small donor matching programs, a version of public financing used successfully in New York City  (see Gavel Grab for more.)

In the New York Times Opinionator blog, Linda Greenhouse discussed Arizona Free Enterprise Club and Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent, in a commentary entitled “A Supreme Court Scorecard.”

You can learn more about Arizona Free Enterprise Club from earlier Gavel Grab posts or the JAS issues page about it.


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