New York Times Editorial: Keeping Politics Safe for the Rich
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: June 8, 2010
In a burst of judicial activism, the Supreme Court on Tuesday upended the gubernatorial race in Arizona, cutting off matching funds to candidates participating in the state’s public campaign finance system. Suddenly, three candidates, including Gov. Jan Brewer, can no longer receive public funds they had counted on to run against a free-spending wealthy opponent.
The court’s reckless order muscling into the race was terse and did not say whether there were any dissents, though it is hard to imagine there were not. An opinion explaining its reasoning will have to wait until the next term, assuming it takes the case, but by that time the state’s general election will be over and its model campaign finance system substantially demolished.
It 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 the old-fashioned way and, ultimately, at the expense of voters.
Arizona’s clean elections program was established by the state’s voters in 1998 after a series of scandals provided clear illustrations of money’s corrupting influence. In particular, the program was prompted by the AzScam scandal of 1991, in which many state legislators were recorded accepting contributions and bribes in exchange for approval of gambling legislation.
The system gives qualifying candidates a lump-sum grant for their primary or general election races in exchange for which 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 additional matching funds.
It was those matching funds that produced a challenge from well-financed candidates, backed by the Goldwater Institute and other conservative interests. The candidates argued that the matching funds “chilled” their freedom of speech because they were afraid to spend more than the limit that triggered the funds. A lower court agreed with that pretzel logic, but last month a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit disagreed. It said the speech of the plaintiffs had not been chilled. “The essence of this claim is not that they have been silenced,” the panel said, “but that the speech of their opponents has been enabled.”
In 2008, the Supreme Court eliminated the Millionaires’ Amendment, which let Congressional candidates raise more money when running against candidates who pay for their own campaigns. In January, in the Citizens United case, the court eliminated limits to campaign spending by corporations. Both cases cited the First Amendment rights of the wealthy, and in that depressing sequence, state finance programs would be the court’s next conquest.
If the court pushes on with its chainsaw, cutting down programs that trigger matching funds, it would threaten systems in Connecticut and Maine, and judicial-race financing systems in Wisconsin, North Carolina and elsewhere. It might even shake New York City’s system, which provides higher matching funds when a well-financed opponent does not participate in the system. Candidates with no prospect of matching funds would be reluctant to join a system that limits their spending. Unless the court veers from its determined path, there will be no limit to the power of a big bankbook on politics.