US Supreme Court Strikes Down AZ Campaign Finance Law

In a 5-4 vote yesterday, the US Supreme Court struck down as an unconstitutional violation of free speech a provision in an Arizona public campaign finance law that gives additional public funds to a candidate who adheres to personal spending limits of $500, agrees to participate in at least one debate, will return unspent money, and faces a high-spending opponent who does not accept public funds. The extra funding depends upon the amount spent by an opponent candidate. The law, the result of a 1998 ballot initiative following a bribery scandal in Arizona involving state legislators, aimed to “level the playing field” for candidates who accept public funds in their campaigns. The decision will likely discourage candidates, many of whom are women, from accepting public funding for fear that they will be greatly outspent by self-financed opponents.

This case involves the fifth campaign finance law struck down by the Roberts Court in a 5-4 decision. This is the first campaign-finance decision to go before the Supreme Court since the Citizens United case last year, in which the Roberts Court ruled 5-4 that corporations are people and struck down limiting independent election spending by corporations and unions.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority and joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., and Anthony Kennedy, contended that the Arizona law violates the First Amendment rights of candidates who choose to self-finance their campaign and/or raise private money. However, Justice Elena Kagan, who was joined in dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer, defended the Arizona law stating, “By providing more resources to many candidates, [the law] creates more speech and thereby broadens public debate….Less corruption, more speech. Robust campaigns leading to the election of representatives not beholden to the few, but accountable to the many. The people of Arizona might have expected a decent respect for those objectives.”

Media Resources: New York Times 6/27/11; Los Angeles Times 6/27/11

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