Supreme Court Blocks AZ Matching Funds For Now

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a setback Tuesday to backers of public financing for election campaigns, barring Arizona from providing matching funds to qualifying candidates for statewide and legislative offices at least temporarily.

The high court’s order threw “a number of high profile campaigns into disarray just weeks before candidates were to start receiving money,” according to an Arizona Capitol Times blog post. The Supreme Court blocked matching fund payments under Arizona’s public financing system after critics of the provision signaled their challenge to a recent appeals court ruling that upheld it (see Gavel Grab).

“The developments in Arizona show just what a tough litigation environment it is right now for those in the lower courts seeking to defend reasonable campaign finance regulations,” wrote legal scholar Rick Hasen in his Election Law blog.

The controversial provision distributes additional taxpayer dollars to publicly-funded candidates if their privately-funded opponent or independent political groups exceed a spending limit set by the state. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the provision last month.

Critics have challenged the constitutionality of the provision, contending that giving taxpayer matching funds to qualifying candidates amounts to a penalty on their privately-funded opponents’ speech by inhibiting their fundraising.

“Arizona will be able to have its first elections in 10 years without having the government place its thumb on the scales in favor of publicly financed candidates,”  Bill Maurer, an Institute for Justice attorney who has helped critics of the provision, told the Associated Press.

State officials have argued that matching funds help fight public corruption, and blocking them would disrupt the campaigns of candidates already committed to accepting public funding. “I’m deeply surprised that they would take this action in the middle of the election,”  Todd Lang, executive director of Arizona’s public campaign finance system, said about the high court action.

The high court order blocking distribution of Arizona matching funds will stay in effect until the court takes action on an appeal that the challengers will file, according to a SCOTUSblog post. It is not expected that the high court would resolve the dispute before its next term starts Oct. 4. The primary election is Aug. 24 and the general election, Nov. 2.

Challengers of the matching funds provision won the blocking order after taking the issue to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is Circuit Justice for the Ninth Circuit.

West Virginia recently became the fourth state  to adopt public financing for state judicial elections. You can read about its law, and about debates over legality of public financing plans for judicial elections, in Gavel Grab. Another source of  information about public financing is a JAS issues page on the topic.

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