In ruling against a road contractor's challenge to the state's "pay-to-play" law, New Jersey's highest court has brought the case against campaign-finance reform to an abrupt and welcome end.
A ringing endorsement of the decision and the law - albeit an unintentional one - came from the contractor's own lawyer. He told a reporter that the outcome "unfortunately sends a message to contractors to really think long and hard about whether they should engage in any political giving . . ."
That is, of course, the whole point.
When government contractors pay for the campaigns of politicians, the potential for corruption is blindingly obvious. And as long as we're addressing such a threat to good government, no one should shed a tear for an asphalt purveyor's right to attend a fund-raiser. The state's courts have now recognized as much.
The contractors and power brokers challenging pay-to-play restrictions have argued that they infringe on constitutionally protected political speech - the "speech" in this case being a check made out to a campaign committee.
A New Jersey appeals court dealt the first blow to that claim in July. It upheld the pay-to-play law on the ground that it serves a compelling state interest - namely, preventing actual or apparent corruption. The appellate court also found that the law passes muster because it's tailored so as not to impede most political contributions - that is, those made by anyone who doesn't hold a substantial government contract or stand to get one soon.
The recent Supreme Court decision unanimously affirmed the appeals court's ruling and its reasoning. That leaves one of the nation's strongest pay-to-play bans intact.
Though progressive, New Jersey's law still has a few serious leaks. For instance, political campaigns and parties can share money more or less at will, which helps some elude the limits.
Gov. Corzine has been right to call for legislation to close that and other loopholes. He recently told the Inquirer's Editorial Board that he would press the issue through executive orders, if need be.
The state's pay-to-players would seem to be running out of friends in the government. Unfortunately, though, they can still count on the Legislature, where the response to Corzine's proposal has been mixed.
The court ruling gives legislators one more reason to stop stalling. If they are looking for another, there's the likelihood of ramped-up stimulus spending on public works, which makes safeguards against corruption and inefficiency that much more urgent.
There's also the federal investigation that prompted New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to withdraw from consideration for a post in President Obama's cabinet. Investigators are reportedly looking into widespread pay-to-play practices in the government bond market.