Supreme Court Rules On Ariz. Campaign Finance Law

Jun 28, 2011
Originally published on July 19, 2011 5:10 pm
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PETER OVERBY: The other big Supreme Court ruling yesterday involved campaign financing. In a 5-4 decision, the court's conservatives struck down a central provision of Arizona's public-financing law. Arizona gives money to state candidates who agree to restrict their fundraising and spending. That part still stands. But Arizona can no longer give those candidates more money to help them better compete against heavily financed rivals or outside groups. That kind of public financing is said to be matching the private funds, or leveling the playing field.

OVERBY: Nick Dranias is with the Goldwater Institute, representing the plaintiffs.

M: If you think about the purpose of electoral politics, there's nothing more dangerous than the government designing a system that would give an absolute advantage to government-funded candidates over citizen-funded candidates.

OVERBY: James Barton, Arizona's assistant attorney general, said public financing has been under repeated challenge since voters approved it in 1998.

M: This is, frankly, the first time that it's really suffered a setback. So I suppose it is probably likely that we'll continue to see challenges from groups that are opposed to the idea of public financing.

OVERBY: Tara Malloy, with the pro-regulatory Campaign Legal Center, said the pressure continues.

M: Disclosure - that is, transparency in elections - has become a huge battleground in the lower courts. We're aware of at least 15 different state laws that have been challenged in this area.

OVERBY: And on the other side of the fence, former Federal Election Commission chairman Brad Smith said the court is moving toward a new principle of political money law.

M: What I call the notion of separation of campaign and state, that it is inappropriate to have the government trying to shape the quantity and the quality and the type of debate that is intended to influence voters when they go to the polls to weigh the performance of that government.

OVERBY: Smith said advocates of regulation overreached in the 1980s and '90s, and with the McCain-Feingold law of 2002.

M: I mean, it seems like self-serving advice, but I think if I were a person who really favored regulation and subsidies and so on in this area, I'd shut up, keep my head down, and quit passing laws for a while.


OVERBY: Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.