-By David G. Savage
June 27, 2011- The Supreme Court, closely divided along ideological lines, made it harder for states and cities to use public funding of campaigns to limit the effect of private money on elections.
In a 5-4 decision, the justices struck down an Arizona law offering extra "matching funds" to candidates who opted to accept only public funds and who faced a free-spending opponent who relied on personal money. The matching funds were designed to make sure the publicly funded candidates could keep pace with their opponent.
While the court's conservatives called the Arizona law an unconstitutional effort to "level the playing field," its liberals said it was a step toward a government "accountable to the many" and not just the wealthy.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for the court's conservative bloc, said the extra boost for the publicly funded candidates is unconstitutional because it "imposes a substantial burden on the speech of privately financed candidates and independent expenditure groups." The chief justice said the government cannot "attempt to equalize electoral opportunities in this manner. … '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."
Roberts said the court was not calling "into question the wisdom of public financing," but its decision will limit the use of matching funds to allow publicly funded candidates to keep pace.
The court noted that both Maine and North Carolina have adopted matching funds laws similar to Arizona's. Minnesota, Connecticut and Florida did the same, the court said, but their laws have been blocked by courts.
Justice Elena Kagan took on Roberts directly in her dissent for the court's liberal wing. She said Arizona's law, adopted by voters in 1998 after an election scandal in which state legislators were caught on video stuffing campaign cash into gym bags, would produce more speech by the candidates, not less.