Campaign-fund law rejected

The justices made it harder for localities to use public financing to "level the playing field."

Posted: June 28, 2011

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court, closely divided along ideological lines, made it harder for states and cities to use public funding of campaigns to limit the effect of private money on elections.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices struck down an Arizona law offering extra "matching funds" to candidates who opted to accept only public funds and who faced a free-spending opponent who relied on personal money. The matching funds aimed to make sure the publicly funded candidates could keep pace with their opponents.

While the court's conservatives called the Arizona law an unconstitutional effort to "level the playing field," its liberals said it was a step toward a government "accountable to the many" and not just the wealthy.

The ruling was the first major one on campaign finance since the 5-4 Citizens United v. FEC decision last year that said corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts on campaign ads.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court's conservative bloc in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, said the extra boost for the publicly funded candidates is unconstitutional because it "imposes a substantial burden on the speech of privately financed candidates and independent expenditure groups."

The government cannot try "to equalize electoral opportunities in this manner," he wrote. " 'Leveling the playing field' can sound like a good thing. But in a democracy, campaigning for office is not a game. It is a critically important form of speech."

Roberts said the court was not calling "into question the wisdom of public financing," but its decision will limit the use of matching funds to allow publicly funded candidates to keep pace.

The court noted that Maine and North Carolina have adopted matching-funds laws similar to Arizona's. Minnesota, Connecticut, and Florida did the same, the court said, but their laws have been blocked by courts.

Justice Elena Kagan took on Roberts directly in her dissent for the court's liberal wing. She said Arizona's law, adopted by voters in 1998 after an election scandal in which state legislators were caught on video stuffing campaign cash into gym bags, would produce more speech by the candidates, not less.

"Less corruption, more speech," Kagan wrote. "Robust campaigns leading to the election of representatives not beholden to the few, but accountable to the many. The people of Arizona might have expected a decent respect for those objectives. Today, they do not get it. . . . Truly, democracy is not a game."

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kagan's dissent.

In Other Action

Also Monday, the Supreme Court:

Said it would decide whether police need a warrant to install a GPS device on a vehicle to track a suspect's movements.

Rejected an appeal from alleged victims of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq who wanted to sue defense contractors over their treatment.

Refused to disturb a $270 million judgment against tobacco firms in a long-running class-

action lawsuit on behalf of smokers in Louisiana.

SOURCE: Associated Press

Read the justices' opinions in the Arizona campaign-finance

case via http://


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