The Supreme Court’s hostility toward campaign-finance regulations is tilting the playing field in favor of wealthy candidates and corporations. In the latest ruling, the court cut off matching funds for candidates in the Arizona governor’s race, invalidating a clean-elections law that has been on the books for more than a decade.
The law was a response to scandals in the early 1990s in which state legislators took bribes and campaign contributions in exchange for approving gaming legislation. This example of judicial activism came without even hearing the merits of the case. At least four justices decided to intervene in the state election and overturned a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A full argument of the case will come later, long after the election.
The ruling means that Gov. Jan Brewer won’t be eligible for $1.4 million in matching funds for her forthcoming GOP primary against a businessman who is spending more than $2 million. Arizona’s voluntary system of public financing gave qualifying candidates lump sums of campaign cash in exchange for their promise not to raise large private donations. If a wealthy candidate chose not to participate and raised donations beyond a certain limit, rival candidates received matching funds.
Conservative groups challenged the law, claiming it inhibits a wealthy candidate’s “speech” because he or she won’t want to spend money beyond the threshold, which would enable their opponent to receive more cash. But Arizona’s law doesn’t curtail a wealthy candidate’s speech. Rather, it encourages a proliferation of speech from other candidates. Instead, the court is on a path to chilling free speech because it is discouraging candidates of lesser means from getting involved in democracy.
Clean-election laws reduce the likelihood of corruption in government and limit the ability of wealthy donors to buy a race. A few states, including Maine and Wisconsin, have implemented these systems successfully. New Jersey tried a pilot program that held promise, but the state has yet to renew it for the 2011 elections. The blocking of Arizona’s public financing comes after the court already opened the floodgates of donations from corporations and unions in federal campaigns.