A closely divided Supreme Court on Monday struck down an Arizona law that allows the state to level the financial playing field for candidates running against wealthy opponents, a decision that advocates of tighter campaign finance regulation describe as a blow to efforts to limit the influence of money on politics.
The high court’s 5-4 decision was a victory for conservative business groups that challenged the constitutionality of an Arizona law giving publicly financed candidates additional subsidies for every dollar that privately financed opponents raised over state spending limits.
At least a half dozen states, plus New York City and San Francisco, have similar laws, according to the Campaign Legal Center.
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.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Elena Kagan argued that the Arizona law was focused on eliminating political corruption, a legitimate government interest. Arizona's matching-funds system is "necessary to break the stranglehold of special interests on our system of government," she said.
Advocates of tighter campaign finance regulation are taking comfort from the fact that the Court's decision is "not as broad as some reformers feared," said Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center. She noted that the Court distinguished the Arizona system from "other styles of public financing" that the justices have previously found to be constitutional. However, she acknowledged that "we are clutching to our silver linings."