High Court Strikes Matching Funds For Publicly Financed Campaigns

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday struck down an Arizona law that provides matching funds to publicly-financed candidates when a privately-financed candidate, or third party groups supporting him, spend more money than the publicly-financed candidate was given.

Under the law, the publicly-financed candidate is given money to match the other candidate’s spending.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that providing funds to a candidate’s opponent is a burden on the political speech of the privately-financed candidate, and therefore the law violates the First Amendment. Unlike other laws the Supreme Court has struck down, the Arizona law directly gives money to candidates instead of raising contribution limits. This means that if a privately financed candidate raised $1,000 at a fundraiser, each of his opponents would receive $940.

Because a candidate would need to consider the benefit his opponents would receive before releasing a campaign ad, Roberts said, the system burdens political speech and is therefore unconstitutional.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing on behalf of herself and the Court’s liberal wing, pointed out that the Arizona scheme was passed by Arizona voters via referendum, and it was intended to combat real corruption in Arizona state offices.

She said that the law was an attempt to lessen the influence of big donors, and she noted that the initial grant of money was designed to be about as much as a candidate would likely need for a given race. Only if the privately financed candidate exceeded that amount would the other candidates receive additional money.

While Chief Justice Roberts called the scheme a “burden on political speech,” Kagan said that it “promotes the values underlying both the First Amendment and our entire Constitution by enhancing the opportunity for free political discussion.”

In his opinion, Roberts affirmed previous rulings which found that public financing “can further governmental interests, such as … preventing corruption,” but said that the Arizona law went too far.

The case was Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett.

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