Arizona Election Public Financing Questioned by High Court

The U.S. Supreme Court signaled it is poised to strike down, likely by a narrow majority, an Arizona law that ties public financing for election candidates to the amount of money raised by or spent on behalf of their opponents.

Hearing arguments today in Washington, the justices questioned a 12-year-old system that supporters say represents one of the most effective ways to encourage candidates to take part in public financing systems.

Today’s session suggested the court will split along lines similar to those that produced last year’s 5-4 ruling freeing corporations to spend money on political ads. Four members of that majority -- excepting only Justice Clarence Thomas, who generally doesn’t ask questions during arguments -- aimed skeptical questions at two lawyers who were defending the Arizona law.

The purpose and effect of the law is to “produce less speech in political campaigns,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.

Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four other Republican appointees -- Kennedy, Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito -- have chipped away at campaign finance restrictions in the last few years.

The Arizona challengers to the law, including Republican Representative John McComish, say the system violates the First Amendment rights of candidates who don’t seek public funds. They point to a 2008 Supreme Court decision voiding a federal law that freed opponents of self-financed candidates from the usual campaign contribution limits.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Arizona system in May, overturning a trial judge’s decision. The panel said the effect on free-speech rights was minimal.

Arizona officials, including Secretary of State Ken Bennett, are defending the measure as a way to reduce the corrupting influence of campaign contributors. President Barack Obama’s administration is also urging the high court to uphold the system.

The cases are McComish v. Bennett, 10-239 and Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, 10-238.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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