Supreme Court Accepts Another Chance to Reverse Ninth Circuit, Uphold First Amendment

Today, the Supreme Court agreed to review McComish v. Bennett (consolidated with Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett), which challenges Arizona’s public financing of elections as an unconstitutional abridgment of speech. Because the case concerns a crucial new battleground in the fight between free speech and “fair” (read: government-controlled) elections, Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the cert petitions filed by our friends at Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice.

McComish centers on Arizona’s “Clean Elections” Act, which provides matching funds to publicly funded candidates if their privately funded opponent spends above certain limits. In other words, by ensuring that his speech will not go “unmatched” by his opponent, the privately funded candidate is penalized for working too hard and speaking too much. The law violates established Supreme Court precedents that have consistently held that forcing a speaker to “disseminate hostile views” as a consequence of speaking abridges the freedom of speech. Although the Ninth Circuit upheld the Arizona law, the Second Circuit recently struck down a similar Connecticut law, thus creating a circuit split that undoubtedly encouraged the Court to take the case.

In 2008 the Court decided Davis v. FEC (in which Cato also filed a brief), which overturned the “millionaires amendment” to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform.” That provision gave similar assurances to candidates faced with the possibility of being outspent by their opponent. There, however, the concern was with rich, self-funded candidates: The act provided increased fundraising limits – triple the amount normally allowed – for candidates whose opponents spent too much (by the government’s judgment) of their own money on their campaign. The Davis Court held that this provision “impose[d] an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises [his] First Amendment right.”

The Arizona law is even worse. It doesn’t even delve into the messiness of fundraising – tripling the contribution limit does not, after all, mean that those funds will be raised – but rather guarantees that a candidate’s “robus[t] exercise[] of [his] First Amendment right” will be met with contrary speech from his opponent. And the law sweeps still broader: it applies the same matching funds provision to groups that spend independently from any campaign but are nevertheless deemed to be supporting a given candidate. Such “uncoordinated speech” by third parties – speech that, many times, the candidate does not want even if it is thought to be on his behalf – also triggers matching funds for the candidate’s opponent.

The end result, as extensive evidence shows, is that numerous speakers – from the candidate to the independent groups – will be reluctant to spend money to speak (which is, of course, required for nearly all effective campaign speech) because their opponents are guaranteed the funds needed to reply. In elections, where the freedom of speech “has its fullest and most urgent application,” such laws simply cannot fly.

Finally, it is also worth remembering what is at stake when we allow politicians to pass laws that determine the very rules by which they hold their jobs. Justice Scalia put this most poignantly in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce: “the Court today endorses the principle that too much speech is an evil that the democratic majority can proscribe. I dissent because that principle is contrary to our case law and incompatible with the absolutely central truth of the First Amendment: that government cannot be trusted to assure, through censorship, the ‘fairness’ of political debate.” As we now well know, the Court overruled Austin this past January in Citizens United, vindicating Scalia’s pro-free speech position.

It will be exciting to see how McComish unfolds. Expect another Cato amicus brief early in the new year, oral arguments in the spring, and a decision by the end of June.