WASHINGTON â€” The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision Monday along familiar ideological lines, invalidated an Arizona law that provides extra funds to candidates who take part in a publicly financed system rather than rely on private backers.
Rejecting the state’s arguments about the potentially corruptive effects of wealthy private interests, the justices ruled that an Arizona provision boosting the funds of publicly funded candidates when their opponents spend money beyond a certain limit impinged free speech rights.
“The state grants funds to publicly financed candidates as a direct result of the speech of privately financed candidates and their” backers,Â Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, spurning Arizona’s interest in fighting corruption or “leveling the playing field.”
The ruling touted the value of free speech, particularly among candidates running for public office.
The Arizona case is the first campaign dispute to reach the court since its controversial January 2010 ruling inÂ Citizens United v.Â Federal Election Commission, which lifted federal limits on corporation and labor union spending in elections.
It was the same five conservative justices who formed the majority inÂ Citizens United that rejected the Arizona regulation as a violation of free political speech. Their decision does not void state public-financing systems, but it could undercut one of the incentives some states employ to entice candidates to use public financing and forgo large private contributions that might lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption.
Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote a dissenting opinion on behalf of the court’s liberals, took the unusual step of reading portions of her dissent from the bench Monday.
She stressed that the Arizona law was intended to break a cycle of corruption in the state and wrote in her opinion, “The majority’s denigration of this interest â€” the suggestion that it either is not real or does not matter â€” wrongly prevents Arizona from protecting the strength and integrity of its democracy.”
Arizona enacted a public financing system for candidates in 1998 in the wake of several political scandals, including the so-called AzScam sting, in which state legislators accepted bribes and campaign contributions in exchange for support of gambling legislation.
The Arizona public-financing law was intended to encourage candidates to accept state contribution and spending limits rather than use large amounts of private money. The disputed provision, rare among states, dictated that once a privately financed candidate spent more than the state’s initial grant to the publicly financed candidate, the publicly funded candidate would get an additional near dollar-for-dollar grant.
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