Supreme Court chips away at public financing component, but framework stands

The Supreme Court swatted down a part of Arizona's public financing system on Monday, but left standing the framework which allows governments to provide candidates with a way to bypass special interest fundraising for their campaigns.

In a 5-4 decision released Monday, the nation's high court threw out the provision in Arizona's public financing system that allowed participating candidates to get additional money when faced with well-funded opponents or groups. However, the Court did not toss out voluntary public financing systems as a whole.

McComish's decision may make it less attractive for some candidates to participate in some public financing systems, it won't eliminate the systems altogether.

Arizona voters in 1998 approved the creation of a voluntary public financing system for legislative and statewide candidates after widespread corruption scandals. Under this Clean Elections system, eligible candidates who opted into the program received public money for their campaigns in exchange for not soliciting and accepting funds from private sources. The system also established "trigger matching funds," or additional money that was given to participating candidates when they faced well-funded opponents or campaign groups.

It was these trigger matching funds which were challenged in court and struck down Monday.

The Court's majority took issue with the trigger funds mechanism because it felt it "substantially burdens the speech of privately financed candidates and independent expenditure groups without serving a compelling state interest," such as the elimination of corruption. In the opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the majority explained that non-participating candidates and outside campaign groups were hurt by the provision because their spending automatically resulted in more campaign cash for public financing candidates

ICPR disagrees with the Court's logic, that providing more funding for candidates somehow diminishes speech, or impinges on anyone's First Amendment rights. Nonetheless, this is the framework the courts have given to us, and we are confident that public financing programs can work within these rules.

Matching trigger systems -- which exist in other public financing systems, including Maine's and North Carolina's -- were included in these voluntary programs to give participating candidates a way to battle on the campaign field when facing privately-funded candidates or third-party interest groups. Without an opportunity to receive additional money, candidates who opt into public financing programs would have a finite amount of money to spend on delivering their message.

The McComish  decision is the latest in a series of recent Supreme Court decisions that chips away at campaign finance law. In a 2008 decision, Davis v. FEC, the Court struck down the so-called "Millionaire's Amendment" of federal law that raised the contribution limits for federal office candidates who faced self-financed opponents. Then, the Court found (similarly) that the provision hindered speech without serving any anti-corruption objective. Last year, the court upended a longtime ban on corporations spending money on campaign messages.

Voters and public interest groups alike have championed the creation of public financing systems because they serve as deterrents to corruption Giving candidates an opportunity to win elections without relying on special interest money eliminates some of the perils that can come with private money, such as the appearance that office-holders are beholden to their financial supporters.

ICPR supports public financing systems because they reduce the often undue influence that moneyed interests have in government and politics. While the McComish  decision is a setback, it's important to note that public financing has not been eliminated.

Shortly after the decision was announced, the Clean Elections  program said it plans to continue operations as it did in 2010, but without matching funds .

While Arizona's Clean Elections system will go on, it's likely that the McComish decision will spur new ways to approach taking private money out of campaigns.

For more on the decision, visit the  Brennan Center .