In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held Monday that Arizona’s public-financing election law violated the First Amendment. The Justices split along ideological lines with Chief Justice John Roberts authoring a majority opinion joined by Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Sam Alito. Justice Elena Kagan authored the dissenting opinion and was joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.
Under the Arizona law, candidates who agreed to certain campaign spending restrictions were eligible for an initial grant of tax payer money to run their campaigns. Publicly-funded candidates were also granted additional dollar-for-dollar matching funds if they were outspent by a privately-financed rival, or an outside group. Matching funds topped out at two times the initial grant.
The majority found that the Supreme Court’s 2008 Davis v. Federal Election Commission decision, invalidating the “Millionaire’s Amendment” of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, dictated the decision in the Arizona case. In Davis, the Court held that the McCain-Feingold law, which permitted candidates whose opponents spent more than $350,000 in personal funds to collect triple the federal contribution limit, unconstitutionally forced a candidate “to choose between the First Amendment right to engage in unfettered political speech and subjection to discriminatory fundraising limitations.”
The majority acknowledged that while the Arizona law was distinguishable from the McCain-Feingold law, the differences only made the First Amendment violation worse. First, while McCain-Feingold only altered campaign contribution limits, the Arizona law directly gave the publicly-financed candidate funds. Second, the possibility of multiple publicly-financed candidates in a single race made the privately financed candidate’s punishment even worse. Finally, the Arizona law also covered expenditures of outside groups meaning that privately-funded candidates could not even control whether or not publicly-funded candidates qualified for more money.
In dissent, Justice Kagan writes: "The First Amendment's core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robeust discussion and debate. Nothing in Arizona's anti-corruption statute ... violates this constitutional protection."