WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday struck down an Arizona law that provides matching funds to candidates who opt to receive only public money and face well-heeled opponents.
The court's conservatives objected to what they saw as an unconstitutional burden on the free speech of privately funded candidates.
" 'Leveling the playing field' can sound like a good thing. But in a democracy, campaigning for office is not a game. It is a critically important form of speech," Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the 5-4 majority. "The First Amendment embodies our choice as a nation that, when it comes to such speech, the guiding principle is freedom — the 'unfettered interchange of ideas' — not whatever the state may view as fair."
Justice Elena Kagan disagreed.
"Less corruption, more speech. Robust campaigns leading to the election of representatives not beholden to the few, but accountable to the many," Kagan wrote in her dissent. "The people of Arizona might have expected a decent respect for those objectives. Today, they do not get it."
Supporters of the Arizona law worry that the ruling is part of a trend toward whittling away at campaign finance laws. New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice defended Arizona's campaign finance law before the Supreme Court with its pro bono counsel Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.
"Unfortunately, this is the latest recent example where the court has struck down long-standing laws designed to curb the corrupting role of large campaign contributions," said Michael Waldman, the executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime opponent of campaign finance restrictions, praised the ruling.
"This was a case that went to the very heart of free speech liberties and the court's disapproval of legislative favoritism," McConnell said. "It was the view of the Supreme Court, which I share, that the Arizona statute substantially impinges on the fundamental right to engage in political speech without the government penalizing someone for it."
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