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Published: Thursday, 6/30/2011

GUEST EDITORIAL

Bad for democracy

The Supreme Court decision this week that struck down public matching funds in Arizona's campaign finance system is a serious setback for American democracy. The opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts in the 5-4 ruling shows again the conservative majority's contempt for campaign finance laws that aim to provide some balance to the unlimited amounts of money that are flooding the political system.

In the Citizens United case, the high court ruled that the government may not ban corporations, unions, and other moneyed institutions from spending in political campaigns. The Arizona decision is a companion to that destructive landmark ruling. It takes away a vital, innovative way of ensuring that candidates who do not have unlimited bank accounts can get enough public dollars to compete effectively.

Arizona's law provided a set amount of money in initial public support for candidates who opted into its campaign financing system, depending on the type of election. If a candidate faced a rival who opted out, the state would match the spending of the privately financed candidate and independent groups supporting him, up to triple the initial amount. Once that limit is reached, the publicly financed candidate receives no other public funds and is barred from using private contributions, no matter how much more the privately financed candidate spends.

Mr. Roberts said this mechanism "imposes a substantial burden" on the free-speech rights of candidates and independent groups, because it penalized them when their spending triggered additional money for a candidate who opted into the public program.

The court turns the First Amendment on its head. It denies the actual effect of the Arizona law, which is not to limit spending but to increase it with public funds. The state program expands political speech by giving all candidates, not just wealthy ones, a chance to run -- while allowing privately financed candidates to spend as much as they want.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing in dissent, dissects the court's willful misunderstanding of the result. Rather than a restriction on speech, she says, the trigger mechanism is a subsidy with the opposite effect: "It subsidizes and produces more political speech."

Those who challenged the law, she wrote, demanded -- and have now won -- the right to "quash others' speech" so they could have "the field to themselves." She explained that the matching funds program -- unlike a lump-sum grant to candidates -- sensibly adjusted the amount disbursed, so that it was neither too little money to attract candidates nor too large a drain on public coffers.

Arizona's system was a response to a history of corruption in the state's politics. Rather than seeing the law as a way to control corruption, the court struck it down as a limit on the right of wealthy candidates and independent groups to speak louder than others.

The ruling left in place other public financing systems without such trigger provisions, including financing for presidential elections. It shows, however, how little the court cares about the interest of citizens in keeping their electoral politics clean.

-- New York Times



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