With the results of yesterdays primaries including big wins for wealthy candidates like former Hewlett-Packard Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina came a quiet yet devastating blow to campaign finance laws courtesy of the Roberts court. On Tuesday the Court barred officials in Arizona from providing matching funds to candidates for state office who accept public financing. The Arizona law was designed to help candidates keep pace with the unlimited public spending of those candidates who forgo public campaign funds.
Like most campaign finance measures, the Arizona law was established by the state’s voters in 1998 after a series of election scandals like AzScam, in which multiple state legislators were recorded accepting contributions and bribes in exchange for passing gambling legislation. The law that the Supreme Court struck down gave qualifying candidates a lump-sum grant for their primary or general election races so long as the candidates agree not to raise large private contributions. If an opposing candidate is not participating in the system and spends more than the lump-sum grant, the participating candidate qualifies for those additional matching funds.
But the Goldwater Institute and other conservative interest groups representing well-financed candidates did not like those matching funds and challenged them on constitutional grounds. The candidates and their backing-interest groups argued that the matching funds violated the First Amendment by “chilling” their freedom of speech. According to the complaint well-financed candidates were afraid to spend more than the limit that triggered the funds for fear of triggering those funds. A lower court agreed, but the Ninth Circuit wasn’t buying it holding that the challengers claim wasn’t that they have been silenced, but that the speech of their (less well-financed) opponents had been enabled.
Rather than providing any clarity on this issue the Supreme Court instead provided a terse, unsigned order that reinstates a trial court injunction barring those additional matching fund payments. The decision has already been the subject of intense criticism as another illustration of the activist reach of the Roberts court since it was purely optional for the Court to take action immediately, let alone in the middle of the election season. It also appears to be part of the natural evolution of the Citizens United decision which lifted limits corporations could spend on candidate campaigns. The New York Times came out with a blistering editorial, stating “[i]t 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. 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 they old-fashioned way and, ultimately, at the expense of voters.”
The Times is spot on in this point, for the damage done by the Roberts court here is not on the behalf of the Republicans over Democrats, but at corporate interests over the interests of average Americans. One of the victims of this most recent decision is Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer who faces a very well financed challenger. As we’ve seen with health care legislation, financial services regulation, and most tragically with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, neither Democrats nor Republicans are above the corporate cash that fuels their campaigns, and savvy corporate interests donate to both major parties in hopes of creating the most favorable legislative and regulatory environment for their business. More and more the interests of business trump the interests of people, and if the Roberts court continues to have its say, things will only get worse.
photo courtesy of stopnlook via Flickr