Supreme Court strikes down Arizona “trigger” funds but reaffirms constitutionality of public financing to fight corruption

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  • Dale Eisman

The Supreme Court today reaffirmed the constitutionality of public financing as a means of fighting political corruption in the case Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett (also known as McComish v. Bennett), while striking down one mechanism used in Arizona’s program. The foundation of public campaign finance programs remains strong, and it is more important than ever that we preserve and extend those reforms, campaign finance groups Common Cause and Public Campaign said.

“The Court’s misguided ruling affects only one mechanism of public financing, and there are numerous ways to fix it,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “Today, in the wake of Citizens United, it is more critical than ever that we change the way we pay for our elections by moving to a small donor system that gives the public a voice back in our government. Nothing short of our democracy is at stake.”

“The five-vote big-money majority on the Court has spoken again in favor of wealthy special interests,” said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign. “Fortunately, the Court has left room for small-donor driven systems like the Fair Elections Now Act.”

The ruling was far from a surprise. The Fair Elections Now Act, which is pending in Congress, was developed as an alternative and written to meet the criteria laid out today by the high court. It allows participating candidates to obtain public funds by voluntarily agreeing to limit their acceptance of large, private donations. Small donations of $100 or less to the Fair Elections candidate are then matched on a five to one basis. In contrast to the Arizona system, Fair Elections candidates do not receive additional funds based on the spending of their privately financed opponents or independent expenditure groups.

As the Supreme Court continues to dismantle common sense campaign reform legislation, it’s up to members of Congress, as well as state legislators, to move forward with legislation to ensure our elections are of, by and for the people-not bought and paid for by special interests.

Fair Elections laws reduce the actuality or appearance of corruption that can arise as a result of private campaign spending, free participating candidates to devote more of their time and energy listening to the concerns of all voters – not just those who give them campaign donations – and have encouraged dozens of political newcomers, who lack independent wealth or a pre-existing network of financial support, to enter the political arena.

Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent shows a far firmer grasp of the First Amendment and its purposes than that proposed by the majority opinion. As Justice Kagan noted, “The First Amendment’s core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate. Nothing in Arizona’s anticorruption statute, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, violates this constitutional protection. To the contrary, the Act promotes the values underlying both the First Amendment and our entire Constitution by enhancing the “opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people.”

In the coming months, Common Cause and Public Campaign will work with reform advocates and reform-minded elected officials across the country to adapt crucial public funding programs to the Court’s new ruling and defend against future challenges.