Federal judge upholds Wisconsin supreme court campaign finance law

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin [official website] on Friday dismissed [order, PDF] two challenges to campaign financing schemes for Wisconsin Supreme Court elections. Wisconsin Right to Life [advocacy website] and the Wisconsin Center for Economic Prosperity challenged the Impartial Justice Act [SB 40 materials, PDF] saying the law violates their First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] rights and had sought a federal injunction to stop public financing before the April 5 election. The plaintiffs had challenged three provisions of the law which require reports of third-party disbursements, a $360,000 trigger of supplemental grants to candidates that elect for public financing and a $1,000 cap on individual contributions made to privately-funded candidates. In upholding the law, Judge William M. Conley found the plaintiffs were not unduly burdened by the law and that any burden on their First Amendment rights was outweighed by the state's "compelling interest in the election of justices to its highest court free from an appearance of bias." Conley did acknowledge, however, that his decision may be undermined by the US Supreme Court's expected ruling on the appeal [JURIST report] of a similar Arizona campaign financing law:

Obviously, even the narrow holding by this court today may be undermined by the Supreme Court's decision in McComish, and the court considered a decision on the merits here pending further guidance from the Supreme Court ... At the same time, the court is painfully aware that its decision may merely be contributing to public financing's 'death by a thousand cuts,' as Justice Breyer put it during oral argument earlier this week in McComish, recognizing that money, like water seems to find its own level.
The plaintiffs said they plan to immediately appeal for emergency relief [MJS report] before the election on Tuesday.

The US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari [JURIST report] to the Arizona campaign financing case in November. In McComish v. Bennett [docket; cert. petition, PDF], the court will determine whether Arizona's matching funds and the law regulating campaign financing to equalize resources among candidates and interest groups, rather than advancing a compelling state interest in the least restrictive manner, violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded [opinion, PDF] that the Arizona public financing scheme and matching funds provision did not offend the First Amendment. In Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett [docket; cert. petition, PDF] the court will determine whether the First Amendment forbids states from providing additional government subsidies to publicly financed candidates that are triggered by independent expenditure groups' speech against such candidates or by the candidates' privately financed opponents.

 

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