As the Supreme Court considered the Goldwater Institute’s appeal in McComish v. Bennett, the justices had to decide if the case raises any issues of nationwide importance. This week, the Court said the Goldwater Institute’s challenge to the use of matching funds in Arizona’s “Clean Elections” system meets that test. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal and will hear oral arguments sometime in the spring of 2011.
The appeal asks the Supreme Court to overrule a refusal by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down the use of matching funds. Arizona’s system guarantees privately-funded candidates who raise or spend money above a certain threshold will prompt the government to subsidize their political opponents in nearly equal measure.
Arizona’s matching funds system violates the First and 14th Amendments by adding special burdens on how and when privately-funded candidates raise or spend money. As explained by Judge Carlos Bea, who dissented from the Ninth Circuit’s decision to preserve Arizona’s matching funds system, “it makes no more sense” for privately-funded candidates to raise or spend money on campaign speech “than for a poker player to make a bet if he knows the house is going to match his bet for his opponent.”
Although labeled differently, similar matching funds systems have existed in government campaign financing schemes throughout the United States, including Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. Most recently, California and Illinois flirted with the idea of creating matching funds systems for elections in those states.
The Supreme Court has recognized that all states need to know the constitutional limits for using taxpayer money to boost publicly funded candidates confronted by opponents who are successful at raising campaign funds on their own. The Court now has the opportunity to permanently end a government funding scheme that makes it harder for privately funded candidates to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Nick Dranias holds the Clarence J. and Katherine P. Duncan Chair for Constitutional Government and is director of the Joseph and Dorothy Donnelly Moller Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute.
Chicago Tribune: Justices to rule on Arizona campaign law