Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Arizona matching-public-campaign-funding case, McComish v. Bennett, spearheaded by our friends at the Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice.
Here's the background: In 1998, after years of scandals ranging from governors being indicted to legislators taking bribes, Arizona passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act. This law was intended to “clean up” state politics by creating a system for publicly funding campaigns. Participation in the public funding is not mandatory, however, and those who do not participate are subject to rules that match their “excess” private funds with disbursals to their opponent from the public fund. In short, if a privately funded candidate spends more than his publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”
Whatever the motivations behind the law, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech. Indeed, ample evidence introduced at trial showed that privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. Notably, in a case where a privately funded candidate is running against more than one publicly assisted opponent, the matching funds act as a multiplier: if privately funded candidate A is running against publicly funded candidates B, C, and D, every dollar A spends will effectively fund his opposition three-fold. In elections where there is no effective speech without spending money, the matching funds provision unquestionably chills speech and thus is clearly unconstitutional. For more, see Roger Pilon's policy forum featuring Goldwater lawyer Nick Dranias, which Cato hosted last week and you can view here.
The oral arguments were entertaining, if predictable. A nice debate opened up between Justices Scalia and Kagan about the burden that publicly financed speech imposes on candidats who trigger that sort of financing mechanism under Arizona law. Justice Kennedy then entered the fray, starting out in his usual place — open to both sides — but soon was laying into the Arizona’s counsel alongside Justice Alito and the Chief Justice.
The United States was granted argument time to support Arizona’s law, but Justice Alito walked the relatively young lawyer from the Solicitor General's office right into what I consider to be his (Alito's) best majority opinion to date, the federal "millionaire's amendment" case (paraphrasing; here's the transcript):
Alito: Do you agree that "leveling the playing field" is not a valid rationale for restricting speech?
US: Sort of.
Alito: Have you read FEC v. Davis?
Note to aspiring SCOTUS litigators: try not to finesse away direct precedent written by a sitting justice.
My prediction is that the Court will decide this as they did Davis, 5-4, with Alito writing the opinion striking down the law and upholding free speech. Cato’s amicus briefs in this case, which you can read here and here, focused on the similarities to Davis, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we'll get cited.
NB: I got to the Court too late to get into the courtroom today but live-tweeted (@ishapiro) the oral arguments from the (overflow) bar members' lounge, which has a live audio feed. I was later informed that such a practice violates the Court rules, however -- ironic given how pro-free-speech this Court is -- so I will not be repeating the short-lived experiment. (That said, you should still follow me on Twitter -- and also be sure to follow our friends @IJ and @GoldwaterInst!)