High court to hear challenge against public financing of campaigns

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge Monday to Arizona's system of public campaign financing, a case that could have major implications for public financing laws across the country.  

At issue in the case is Arizona's "clean elections" law, which offers a greater level of public funding to candidates outspent by opponents who forgo any public funds.

Should a candidate, or outside groups backing that candidate, spend more than the amount of public money provided to their opponent through the law, the spending triggers the availability of additional public funds for the candidate's opponent. Critics of the law argue the additional funding amounts to an unconstitutional restriction on the free speech of those running privately funded races.   

The case, McComish v. Bennett, carries the name of Arizona state Sen. John McComish (R), who argues the law has had a "chilling" effect, with candidates limiting their spending in an attempt to avoid triggering the matching funds for their opponents.

McComish was already handed a defeat in a federal appeals court, but the Supreme Court blocked Arizona from enforcing the "clean elections" law, pending its hearing of the case. 

Campaign finance watchdogs fear that in the wake of last year's Citizens United decision, which paved the way for unlimited corporate spending in elections, the next step for the court could be a sweeping rejection of public financing laws.

"The case could have a broad impact on federal and state efforts to create alternative methods for funding election campaigns," wrote the Campaign Legal Center's Gerry Hebert and Tara Malloy. "Depending on its scope, an adverse ruling from the high court could undermine public financing systems across the country and increase still further the grossly disproportionate voice given to corporations and unions in our elections."

In its history, the Supreme Court has issued just one ruling on public financing, explains SCOTUSblog's Lyle Denniston. That came in the court's landmark 1976 Buckly v. Valeo decision. 

In Buckley, the Court upheld a system of transferring taxpayer donations (through a tax return check-off) to presidential candidates who were willing to keep their campaign spending within specified federal limits. The Court there treated the subsidy system as a reform measure, remarking with approval that Congress had created that system “to reduce the deleterious influence of large contributions on our political process, to facilitate communication by candidates with the electorate, and to free candidates from the rigors of fund-raising.” The system, the Court said, actually supports the “general welfare” of the country.

But that measure had been attacked in Buckley by those who had been left out of the subsidies — minority parties and those running independently of political parties — and who wanted to share in the taxpayer donations. The new challenge now before the Supreme Court is by those who believe that public financing of candidates is not a “reform” at all, but a corruption of the campaign process by putting the government’s thumb on the scale to support one side: that is, those who get the subsidies.

Should the high court rule against the Arizona law, watchdog groups are hoping for a decision more narrow in scope than last year's ruling in Citizens United.

Earlier this month, the high court did decline another campaign finance case. Former Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), along with the Republican National Committee, were challenging the constitutionality of limits on what political parties can spend in coordination with candidates.