[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Monday in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett [Cornell LII backgrounder] that an Arizona campaign finance regulation that provided publicly financed candidates with additional government subsidies, which are triggered by independent expenditure groups’ speech against such candidates or by the candidates’ privately financed opponents, violates the First Amendment [text]. The court held 5-4 that such a system substantially burdens political speech and is not sufficiently justified by a compelling state interest to satisfy the First Amendment. The Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act [Ariz Rev Stat Ann § 16-940 et. seq.] provided a system by which candidates running for state office could opt into a public financing scheme. Under the scheme, the candidate would agree to follow certain campaign finance restrictions and agree to other things like participating in a public debate in exchange for receiving an allotment of public funds for the campaign. Under the Act, candidates participating in the public financing scheme would receive matching funds for every dollar a privately funded candidate spent over the original public allotment, less 6 percent accounting for fund raising expenses. The scheme allowed for a situation where if a group spent $1,000 publishing a brochure supporting one privately-funded candidate then a publicly-funded candidate would receive $940, but if the brochure supported the publicly-funded candidate the privately-funded candidate receives nothing. The court held that such a scheme is substantially burdensome on the privately-funded candidates because it harms them for exercising First Amendment rights to raise and/or spend their own money on their campaign. The court said that it has never held that the state’s interest in leveling the playing field is enough to suppress or alter political speech. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent, joined by three others, disagreeing that the finance system was a substantial burden and that the state’s interest was justified based on ensuring the legitimacy and public trust in the election system. She wrote:
The First Amendment’s core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate. Nothing in Arizona’s anti-corruption statute, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, violates this constitutional protection. To the contrary, the Act promotes the values underlying both the First Amendment and our entire Constitution by enhancing the “opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people.”
The majority opinion was authored by Chief Justice John Roberts.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case in March. Counsel for the respondent argued that “public funding of elections results in more speech and more electoral competition” and furthers a governmental interest of combating “real and apparent corruption in politics.” Further, that public funding combats corruption by freeing candidates from the “need to accept potentially corrupting private contributions,” and allows for more candidates to run, “more political speech, and more electoral competition.” Arizona’s matching funds system both promoted speech and encouraged candidates to run against incumbents. The government argued, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondents that the matching funds provision “provides a formula for giving the publicly funded candidate as much money as the privately funded candidate.” The government agreed that public financing facilitated speech and allowed candidates to run on the same footing.