Campaign Public Financing System Draws U.S. High Court Scrutiny

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a Republican-backed challenge to an Arizona law that aims to even out campaign spending, accepting a case that raises questions about public financing programs around the country.

The justices today said they will review the 12-year-old Arizona system, which ties the funds participating candidates receive to the amount of money raised by or spent on behalf of their opponents. Several other states use similar trigger mechanisms, according to the lawmakers challenging the measure.

A ruling striking down the measure would eliminate one of the most effective ways to encourage candidates to take part in public financing systems, according to Rick Hasen, an election- law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. The high court has already signaled its doubts about the Arizona law, intervening in June to prevent its use in the 2010 election.

“The court is likely to take away one of the only tools available to drafters of public financing measures to make such financing attractive to candidates,” Hasen wrote in a blog post yesterday.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has shown itself to be skeptical of campaign finance regulations, most visibly in a 5-4 decision in January striking down decades-old restrictions on corporate campaign spending.

The Arizona challengers, including 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.

Punish and Deter

“The government may not single out, punish and deter the exercise of First Amendment Rights by causing the campaign financing efforts of traditional candidates and their supporters to produce fundraising advantages for their political opponents,” McComish argued in his appeal.

The 2008 ruling, like the corporate spending case, was a 5-4 decision that divided the court along ideological lines.

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, defend the measure as a way to reduce the corrupting influence of campaign contributors.

“By eliminating a necessary component of any contributions-for-political-favors scheme, it fights quid-pro-quo corruption,” lawyers for the state argued.

The justices will hear arguments next year and probably rule by the end of June.

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

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE