The United States Supreme Court today struck down an Arizona law that would have given publicly financed candidates for political office additional subsidies for every dollar that privately financed opponents raised over state spending limits. According to The National Journal:
The decision was not a surprise, given the justices’ skeptical questioning of the Arizona law’s legal underpinnings during oral arguments earlier this year. But to campaign finance reformers, it represents the latest step in what they fear is the gradual unwinding of a regulatory system that dates back to the Watergate scandals of the 1970s.
Chief Justice John Roberts read the Court’s majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. The majority concluded that the “substantial burden” the Arizona law places on the First Amendment rights of candidates and independent spending groups who opt out of public financing outweighs any interest in helping candidates combat better-funded opposition.
“We have repeatedly held that leveling the playing field is not a legitimate government function,” Roberts said.
Not surprisingly, Justice Elena Kagan vigorously dissented, writing that Arizona’s matching-funds system is “necessary to break the stranglehold of special interests on our system of government.”
Roberts is right, of course. As is frequently said, it’s not the government’s role to pick winners and losers. Nor are U.S. citizens (or political candidates) entitled to equal results.
As John Eastman, professor of law at Chapman University, explains, “Arizona lost this case when it acknowledged at oral argument that it was attempting to level the playing field, one of the mainstays of impermissible purposes in the Court’s campaign finance jurisprudence.”
But, just as the Citizens United v. FERC decision only led to more determined attempts to regulate campaign finance, this Supreme Court decision is unlikely to settle the issue, either. “Reformers” who aim to limit the influence of money in politics have also tried to curtail political speech through both the legislature and the executive. Congress, for example, introduced (but failed to pass) the DISCLOSE Act, which would have reversed the Citizens United decision. On the executive front, President Barack Obama drafted an executive order to require would-be government contractors to disclose their political donations to be eligible for government business — but never issued it. Repeated attempts to more deeply regulate political speech in the future would come as no surprise.