Wall Street Journal: “The order was short, swift, and largely flew under the radar”
Last winter’s Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which lifted restrictions on corporate spending in elections, had been widely anticipated and aroused immediate outrage. It appears, however, that Citizens United was far from the last move in what the Wall Street Journal describes as the Court’s sweeping “overhaul of the nation’s campaign-financing laws.”
In a brief, one-page decision issued on Tuesday, the Supreme Court cut off additional matching funds for three Arizona candidates who are participating in that state’s public campaign finance system for the upcoming August 24 primary, thereby significantly benefiting a fourth candidate who has not accepted public financing.
“Suddenly, three candidates, including Gov. Jan Brewer, can no longer receive public funds they had counted on to run against a free-spending wealthy opponent,” the New York Times explained in an editorial titled “Keeping Politics Safe for the Rich.”
“It seems likely that the Roberts court will use this case to continue its destruction of the laws and systems set up in recent decades to reduce the influence of big money in politics,” the Times continued. “By the time it is finished, millionaires and corporations will have regained an enormous voice in American politics, at the expense of candidates who have to raise money the old-fashioned way and, ultimately, at the expense of voters.”
Under Arizona’s Clean Elections program, which was enacted in 1998 following a gambling-related bribery scandal, if one candidate in a state election decides to forego public funding in order to seek large private donations, the other candidates become entitled to additional matching funds. Several conservative candidates had challenged this system on the grounds that it “chilled” their freedom of speech by giving them a motivation to limit their own private spending.
The challengers were represented by a lawyer from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest firm, funded by right-wing foundations, which seeks to eliminate all government regulation of business.
Although a District Court initially ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that decision in May, saying that the matching funds impose no more than a “minimal burden” on free speech rights and that this is justified in light of Arizona’s “long history” of political corruption.
The plaintiffs sought an emergency stay of the decision from the Supreme Court, and that has now been granted. The plaintiffs intend further to seek a full review of the case by the Court, which would almost certainly have the effect of preventing the use of matching funds in next fall’s general election, since a ruling would probably not come until after November. Any such ruling could derail similar public campaign financing systems in other states, as well.
Because what the Times described as “the court’s reckless order muscling into the race” simply granted a stay on a lower court decision, there was no indication as to the grounds for the order or whether there were any dissents. “An opinion explaining its reasoning will have to wait until the next term,” the Times noted, “assuming it takes the case, but by that time the stateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s general election will be over and its model campaign finance system substantially demolished.”
According to the Washington Post, “Brewer and other gubernatorial candidates who agreed to public financing will see their expected money drop from a little more than $2.1 million to $707,447 under the state formula. Businessman Buz Mills, a privately funded candidate in the Republican primary, already has spent nearly $2.3 million.”
“We think this will throw the Arizona election cycle into chaos,” David Donnelly of the group Public Campaign told the Post. “The court is preventing them from running the campaign they signed up to run.”