- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2010

The Supreme Court announced Monday it will consider a challenge to an Arizona campaign finance law that provides public money to some candidates for state offices.

Opponents of the law say it violates the constitutional right to freedom of speech for candidates who do not receive public money. Those in favor say the law ensures competitive races and helps weed out corruption.

Arizona passed the law in 1998 in the wake of a scandal in which state lawmakers were captured on film taking bribes and campaign donations in exchange for supporting gambling legislation.

Under the law, candidates receive a certain amount of public money if they agree to forgo private campaign fundraising. But a candidate can receive double the initial amount of public money if he or she faces an opponent who is raising large amounts of private money instead of taking part in the public-financing program.

“The candidates who opt into the system are granted funding advantages designed to equalize their speech with the speech of candidates who elect to fund their own campaigns or raise money from private donors,” the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm representing opponents of the law, wrote in a brief submitted to the high court.

The court’s final decision in the case could have serious implications for states that have passed similar laws.

Maine and Connecticut have passed laws that similarly provided matching public funds for state office candidates facing well-funded opponents. Other states - Florida, Hawaii, New Mexico, North Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin - have such similar funding for elections involving some state offices, according to court documents.

The high court has been inclined in recent years to scale back campaign finance reform laws.

In 2008, justices struck down a federal law that was somewhat reminiscent of the Arizona law. The federal law, known as the “Millionaire’s Amendment” to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act, allowed candidates to avoid fundraising limits against opponents using large amounts of their own money to finance a campaign.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, considered one of the nation’s most liberal, previously upheld the Arizona law, but the Supreme Court already dealt it a setback in June when it stopped the state, pending the outcome of challenges to the law, from distributing the additional money to candidates facing well-funded opponents.

The free-speech claims in the Arizona case have echoes of the arguments used in the landmark campaign finance case known as Citizens United. In that case, which was decided earlier this year, the court struck down federal campaign finance laws that prohibited all contributions from corporations and unions.

The Supreme Court combined two challenges to the law, known as Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett and McComish v. Bennett, into a single case and will hear arguments in the case at some point next year.

• Ben Conery can be reached at bconery@washingtontimes.com.

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